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Authors: Lynne Bryant

Tags: #Mississippi, #Historic Sites, #Tour Guides (Persons), #Historic Buildings - Mississippi, #Mississippi - Race Relations, #Family Life, #African Americans - Mississippi, #Fiction, #General, #African American, #Historic Sites - Mississippi, #African Americans

Catfish Alley

BOOK: Catfish Alley
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Catfish
Alley

 

Lynne Bryant

 

THORNDIKE
PRESS

A part of Gale, Cengage
Learning

GALE
CENGAGE Learning

Detroit • New York • San Francisco • New
Haven, Conn • Waterville, Maine • London
Copyright © Lynne Bryant, 2011.

Thorndike Press, a part of Gale,
Cengage Learning.

ALL
RIGHTS RESERVED

This is a work of fiction. Names,
characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's
imagination or are used fictitiously, any resemblance to actual persons, living
or dead, business establishments, events, locales is entirely coincidental. The
publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility
for author or third-party websites or their content.

Thorndike Press® Large Print Core.

The text of this Large Print edition
is unabridged.

Other aspects of the book may vary
from the original edition.

Set in 16 pt. Plantin.

LIBRARY
OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

Bryant, Lynne, 1959-

Catfish alley
By Lynne Bryant.span>

p. cm. — (Thorndike Press large print
core) ISBN-13: 978-1-4104-3823-2 (hardcover) ISBN-10: 1-4104-3823-6 (hardcover)
1. Tour guides (Persons)—Fiction. 2. Historic sites—Mississippi—Fiction. 3.
African Americans—Mississippi—Fiction. 4. Mississippi—Race relations—Fiction.
5. Large type books. I. Title. PS3602.R949C37 2011b

813.6—dc22 2011011201

Published in 2011 by arrangement with
NAL Signet, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

Printed
in the United States of America 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 15 14 13 12 If

 

For Annie Lorene Lancaster Bryant

 

Prologue

 

August 1931
Thomas "Zero"
Clark

It's pitch-black dark. The buzz of
crickets and tree frogs is so loud down by the river, I can barely hear myself
think. I slip out of my boat and pull it up on the bank, feeling sweat run down
my back as I get myself ready for the steep climb. The package is still tucked
safe inside my shirt and the laces on my boots are tied tight. These old boots
are so full of holes I can feel the black mud of the riverbank oozing in
between my toes.

The moon is a fingernail tonight. A
snake slithers across my foot and I almost squeal like a girl. The last thing I
need is to get bit by a water moccasin. How would I ever explain that to Mama
in the morning?

It takes some scrambling, pulling,
and fierce scratches from wild blackberry bushes, but I finally make my way to
the top of the riverbank. This is the side of the Tombigbee that to make sure
nobody's outside. Riverview stands there in all her glory, a mansion with
fourteen rooms. Even the kitchen out back is bigger than my house and barn put
together.

This is where it gets tricky. I'll
get paid good money once this package is delivered, or no money, and a lot of
rope, if I get caught. Between the climb, the snake, and the cold fear of what
Ellen Davenport's daddy or brothers might do if they find a black man under her
bedroom window, I'm having a hard time catching my breath.

There's not a light on in any of the
windows. Sarah Jane, the maid, told me that John W. and Marie Davenport go to
bed early on Saturday evenings because of church on Sunday. Ellen's room is on
the second floor at the back of the house with a balcony overlooking the river.
The plan is for Ellen to light a candle so I know which window is hers. There's
no candle lit. I stand in the tree line at the edge of the wide green yard and
wonder if the dogs are locked up for the night. J. W. Davenport has the best
coon dogs in the county. The dog pens are farther upriver toward the barn.
That's why I put the boat in where I did, to stay away from the pens. If they
start barking, this man's goose is good as cooked.

Maybe I'm a little early. The Delivery
instructions said I'm supposed to get the package to Miss Ellen between
midnight and one in the morning. I don't own a watch, but I hear the clock on
the First Baptist Church, just three blocks away, strike the half hour.
Mosquitoes swarm like black clouds and bite my ankles and bare arms. I don't
slap at them for fear of waking the folks at Riverview or those dogs.

There it is! A tiny little flame in
a window on the upper east side of the house. As I watch, the balcony door
opens about a foot and a woman slips out. She glows like a ghost in that white
nightgown. I shiver at the sight of her. Her long black hair hangs down around
her shoulders and falls down her back. She holds a candle near her chin and it
lights up her face. She's not much of a looker. I surely don't understand what
all the fuss is about. But I'm getting paid good money, and Lord knows, I need
it.

I study the yard for the hundredth
time. I've been over and over my route from the riverbank to the window. Bank
to gazebo, around the gazebo to the kitchen, past the kitchen to the rose
arbor, around the rose arbor to the chairs, drop down there and crawl over to
the house. There's a big set of windows in the sunroom right under her bedroom
window. I
have
to be sure that room is empty, because once I step out, there'll be no hiding.

I take off running, my heart beating
in my throat. I crouch behind a big lawn chair to catch my breath — so far, so
good. It's so dark she didn't see me cross the yard. That's a good thing. She's
still peering out over her candle, studying the night like I'm coming from the
trees instead of the ground. I'm fixing to step out into the open when
something brushes across my ankles and, again, that little girl scream is in my
throat. As it is, I suck in my breath so loud, I see the candle flicker when
she turns toward the sound.

A fat calico cat is winding around
my leg, rubbing her head on my boot. She starts to meowing and I think that
right about now, I could kick that damn cat from here to Christmas, but instead
I scratch her behind the ears to get her to shut up her yowling. She starts
purring and rolls over on her back so's I can rub her belly. Cat! I didn't
count on a cat. I hear a whisper coming from the balcony.

"Who's there? Is that you,
Andrew?"

Now what in the world is she doing
calling for Andrew Benton? I reckon Andrew didn't tell her he's too much of a
chicken shit to deliver this package himself. Next to finding a black man in
his yard, finding the likes of Andrew Benton would be the next worst thing
for J. W. Davenport. I step out from
behind the chair and call to her as quiet as I can.

"Hey, Miss Ellen. It's me,
Zero."

From where I stand, I can see the
candle flame trembling. The girl is shaking like a leaf. "Zero? What are
you doing here? Where's Andrew?"

Good question. Where the hell is
Andrew Benton? Not risking his ass in the middle of the night to deliver some
mystery package to a white girl. And not just any white girl, but the daughter
of the richest man in Clarksville, Mississippi. The money. I got to remember
the money. Money means college, and college means a way out. Out of
Mississippi, out of working for the white man twelve hours a day. College means
a profession, a real profession, like doctoring.

"Andrew asked me to deliver
this package to you, Miss Ellen. I've got it here. Now, I'm going to toss it up
to you and you make sure you catch it, all right?"

"A package? What kind of
package? What did Andrew tell you?"

Sweet Jesus! I don't have time to
stand here talking to this white girl about the woes of her love life with
Andrew Benton. I got no interest in their secrets."He didn't tell me
nothin', Miss Ellen. He said it was real important that I get this package to
you tonight, but he didn't tell me nothin' else. I'm going to toss it up now.
You ready?"

"I guess. I still don't
understand why Andrew didn't come." She sets the candle down on the floor
of the balcony and leans out over the rail, peering into the dark trying to see
me. "Is it heavy?"

"No, ma'am, it's not heavy. It
'pears to be just a small box."

"A small box?" She sounds
real excited now and holds her hands out. "I'm ready."

I toss the box as gentle as I can
toward her hands. She doesn't catch it. The box lands on the ground with a
thud. I pick it up and try again. After three tries, she finally catches it.
Thank the Lord.

"There now, Miss Ellen. You get
back inside. I'll be going."

"Thank you, Zero, good
night."

"Yes, ma'am." I nod, then
turn and head for the river. I don't know it, but that calico cat has come up
behind me again, and when I set my foot down, it lands square on her tail. She
hollers like she is dying and I can't help but cuss. "Damn!"

That cat runs off like greased
lightning and so do I. As the coon dogs bay at the cat's scream, I run for the
riverbank as fast as my old mud-filled boots will carry me.

Chapter 1

September
2002

Grace

 

I'm
moving slower than usual this morning. My joints ache like they do every year
in the fall, but today it's the memories weighing me down, catching around my
ankles like tall grass. That Reeves woman calling yesterday has me stirred up.

"Miss
Clark," she said, "I'd like to visit with you about your knowledge of
African-American history in this area. I was wondering if I could set up a
time to drive out to Pecan Cottage and meet with you."

I
still don't know what she's talking about. What knowledge? I taught third-and
fourth-graders for forty years, but I'm no historian. White folks. Eighty-nine
years, you'd think I'd be used to them by now. I said I'd meet with her, but
I'd rather be out in the garden. The last of the tomatoes need to be gathered
and this old house needs a few repairs before the frost comes.

I
prefer for folks to just let me be. A long time ago, I made that promise to
keep up Pecan Cottage and I do, with Walter's help, of course. I look out the
window to see if he's still out there picking up pecans. Those trees are so old
now that they're starting to take more work than he can keep up with. But, Lord
have mercy, I'd hate to lose them. They line the whole quarter mile of the driveway,
so that coming up on this house is almost a surprise when you pass the last
one. It still galls me a little bit not to be able to do all the work myself,
even though Walter's been with me a long time. He needed a job and I needed
help, but I don't want some white woman poking her nose into my business,
asking questions. Just when I think I've made my peace with those old hurts,
her calling has got me to thinking about things I haven't thought about in a
long time. No use in dwelling on the past.

For
most of the years of my life I've focused on my grandma's advice, "Don't
let nobody keep you down." I reckon this meeting today is probably what
white folks would consider progress. Roxanne Reeves is the director of the
Clarksville Pilgrimage Tour of Antebellum Homes. Apparently they now have some
sort of new idea for an African-American historical tour and she wants to talk
to me about it.

Funny
thing is, I've lived in this town all my life, know its people and history
better than I know what day of the week it is most days, and I've never toured
any of those big old houses. Clarksville was a hospital town during the War
Between the States, so most of the houses around here didn't get burned down.
Sets my teeth on edge a little bit thinking about the show they put on every
year. Those houses are pretty, all right, what with the big white columns and
wide porches, big old Boston ferns and wicker furniture out front. I've heard
people come from all over the country to see them. They call it a pilgrimage, a
journey to a sacred place. Sacred? Can't do much but shake your head at that
one.

BOOK: Catfish Alley
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