Read Magic City Online

Authors: Jewell Parker Rhodes

Magic City

BOOK: Magic City
Magic City
Jewell Parker Rhodes

o Kelly and Evan
Live your best dreams

Tulsa is the “Magic City.”

Young, prosperous

New oil spewing from the ground

A dream land

The most modern city in the West

—Dunn's Western Travel Guide
, 1920

Go down, Moses

Way down in Egyptland

Tell old Pharaoh

Let my people go

—Negro Spiritual



Joe Samuels had decided to quit dreaming. Decided to stop…


Mary Keane had spent nearly an hour at the kitchen…


Dread followed Joe down the staircase. First, there were the…


Mary wondered if she was going crazy. Her head flickered…


Joe leaped from the porch, his gait stretching until he…


The closer Mary got to town, the worse she felt.


The barbershop bell jangled as Joe and Gabe walked through…


Allen Thornton didn't know what to do about Mary. He…


Joe spun blindly through the revolving glass door, stumbled, and…


“Let me through. Coming through.” Sheriff Clay elbowed his way…


“Tyler, Tyler!” Joe bounded up the stairs, two, three at…


Gabe made himself walk. White folks already had one nigger…


Mary awoke, feeling safe and warm, lying on a cot…


Like he knew Houdini would, Joe measured out his cell…


“Are you sure you're up to this?” asked Allen.


Hildy kept seeing Joe, caged and hurting. A jailer wouldn't…


Clay couldn't quite remember the joke. It bothered him—something about…


Mary heard it first, an engine cutting abruptly, wheels rolling…


Joe moaned, slowly pulling out of darkness, a dreamless sleep.


Clay was cold. He arched his back, trying to ease…


A breeze touched Joe's hair as he stepped onto the…


The kitchen was in mourning. Sunlight poked through the screen…


Their breathing was in sync. Joe watched Gabe crush another…


Joe jerked awake, lifting his head off his chest, and…


Mary felt a kind of happiness, solace. Hearing the women's…


Belly down, Joe and Lying Man hid in the dirt.


Joe zigzagged down Archer, leaping from shadow to shadow—hot on…


The world was ending.


Joe was on the run again. Run, nigger, run. The…


Looking out Allen's shop window, it amazed Mary that Main…


Clay had burned every goddamned bridge there was. He'd called…


When Henry and Gabe left for war, there'd been a…

Sunday, May 29, 1921

oe Samuels had decided to quit dreaming. Decided to stop dreaming of leaving Tulsa, of discovering new horizons streaked with magic. Yet here he was lying by the tracks, his head to the ground, listening to the rumblings of the 9:45 preparing to leave, trailing Pullman cars and flat cars loaded with cotton and crude.

Weary, disoriented, Joe needed sleep. He wanted to ride the rails over the Rockies to the Pacific in a sleeper car, cozy, dreamless in an upper bunk. He didn't want to dream of dying. Three nights in a row, he'd had the same dream. A dream that he sensed was something more than a dream—a haunting, a premonition, an evil worked by the Devil.

The train whistle squealed: two short bursts, one long. The conductor called, “All aboard.” Joe fought the urge to dash forward, jump aboard, and settle in the converted boxcar for Negroes. He'd be thrown off without a ticket. He could hide wedged between animals or crates. But without cash, he'd starve wherever he ended. He'd be forced to wire his father. Forced to admit he couldn't make it on his own.

Joe felt the ground vibrating beneath his fingertips. Steam hissed.
The train lurched, picking up speed—its headlight glaring, glinting against the steel rails—moving, groaning, journeying on.
Then gone. Leaving no trace, no murmur
. Only stillness, quiet rails, and humid heat.

Despair washed over him. Joe did and didn't want to be in Tulsa.

He loved Deep Greenwood, the Negro section of Tulsa. Church women testified how Greenwood had risen miraculously out of the dust, how ex-slaves had built a town of telephone poles, electric lights, and a Booker T. Washington High School.

“In America, there's no better place than Greenwood to be a Negro,” his father always said. “No better place to be a Samuels.” Property and wealth. Joe, the youngest son. Born a bit too brown for his mother's taste; too lazy for his father's. But always, in Greenwood, he was the banker's son.

In Tulsa, he was just another nigger. A two-bit shoeshine.

Joe imagined himself riding the rails to the ocean. Then he'd leap, manacled, off the Golden Gate Bridge, just like Houdini had. He'd surface, hands freed, to champagne and cheering.

In a year of shining shoes, Joe had saved two hundred dollars. Another year, he'd have four hundred. Another year, his father might understand why he wanted to go. Might even wish him well. In another year, Joe might be able to say good-bye to his sister Hildy. To Lying Man. His brother's grave. He might understand why, in a place he loved so much, he felt like he was dying.

He was afraid of going home to bed, of being haunted by his nightmare. He'd give up all his imaginings, his longing to leave Tulsa, if only his nightmare would stop. He'd vow never to dream again. He'd be grateful for living in Tulsa.

Lifting his head, Joe thought he heard Lying Man's harmonica:

How long the train's been gone?

Baby, how long? How long?

Reluctant, Joe stood, humming the tune. Negro curfew was ten o'clock. He passed the ticket window. The clerk hollered, “Best hurry home, boy. Else you'll catch it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Boy!” the ruddy man leaned out the window. Joe held his breath. The clerk's bald head caught the light. “Do that trick again.”

“Yes, mister.” Retracing his steps, Joe pulled a coin from his pocket. It flipped in and out between his knuckles, picking up speed, a thin ribbon of silver diving, weaving in and out across his dark fingers, until it disappeared.

“I'll be damned.”

The station clock read 9:55.

Joe murmured, “Got to hurry, mister,” and turned onto First Street. Glancing in the windows of the Pig's Ear Diner, he saw deputies still drinking coffee. He ought to make it.

A crowd was leaving the Opera House: women draped in silk and fox stoles; men, in top hats and tails. Joe avoided them, studying the pavement's cracks—he was still in Tulsa, not Greenwood.

Walking briskly, Joe turned into Courthouse Square. It was faster cutting across the park. Bluegrass cushioned his feet; oaks arched overhead. On the left was the Ambrose Building, where he worked, and the Henly Hotel. On the right was the Courthouse and the city's pride—a seven-story, steel and brick “inescapable” jail. Joe bet it couldn't hold Houdini. They could handcuff Houdini, lock and chain him in a darkened cell, and he'd still escape.

He headed northeast for another mile. Greenwood and Archer divided Tulsa like a cross. Bawdy houses, juke joints, and gambling dens flourished in back alleys.

Joe stepped onto the northeast curb; he was safe. Home. In Deep Greenwood. But he didn't feel any ease. He turned onto Elgin where, in daylight, children tossed balls, skinned their knees, and climbed trees. Atop the hill, in front of him, he could see Mt. Zion's steeple outlined against the sky. Street lamps cast gnarled shadows. Joe hesitated, feeling dread as he remembered his nightmare.
His home, the entire street bursting into flames

“Evening, Joe,” voices called from the enclosed porches. Shrill and bass voices blended with evening sounds: trilling crickets, a hiccuping baby, frenzied moths batting at screens. Joe couldn't see faces. He didn't need to, for he knew everyone, who lived where.

“Fine evening.”

“Yes, Mrs. Jackson.”

“A bit late, aren't you, Joe?” asked Abe, a sweeper at McNulty's Baseball Park.

“Visiting a girl?” asked Miss Wright, his third-grade teacher, now blind as a newborn.

“No, Miss Wright.”

Joe exhaled, feeling his spirits lift. Deep Greenwood. Tulsa's darker cousin. A black small town within the white city.

What was it that salesman had said? Joe had been buffing the final polish when the freckle-faced man, pleased with his day's sales of aluminum pots, dish rags, and lye, crowed to his companion, “I'd live in Greenwood myself, if there weren't so many niggers.”

Joe slipped through the back door of his house, tiptoed through the parlor.

He wouldn't dream. “Everything is a matter of will,” Houdini had said. He'd read it in a magazine. Staring at Houdini's eyes, brows arched, pinpricks of light trapped in his irises, Joe had felt magic stir inside him. He could be more than Tulsa's nigger, more than the banker's son.

A light was on in the kitchen. Hildy was probably reading her Bible and making biscuits. He climbed the stairs to his attic bedroom, stripped his clothes, and crawled into bed.


Handcuffs held him. Not regulation cuffs but metal of some private design with double bolts and a strange inflexible spring. Joe could feel fear tricking him, causing his heart to contract, telling him it couldn't be done—that he couldn't escape

“Who do you think you are?”

Joe bit the thin skin inside his mouth, tasting blood, feeling pain rush behind his eyes. It was all a matter of will. Pain lessened fear. All he had to do was let himself relax, detach himself from the panic of feeling cold metal twisting his arms back in their sockets. The trick was to feel the steel's special grace. Not to be afraid of stillness, of wrists trapped in polished bands. He stretched his fingers, long and dark, arcing them as though he were about to sound a chord on ivory keys. Then, he sighed, clasping his palms (fingers alternating) in a gentle embrace

“Who do you think you are?”

His street was deserted. Shutters closed; screen doors locked. No one could save him

The sun scorched his neck as he tried to force back sweat running from beneath his arms, along his bare waist, and down to his penis, which hung limp, as shriveled as the bulls' balls hauled from the slaughter

It was all in how you relaxed. Just as he tried to relax now—to detach himself from the band of white-robed ghosts circling him, humming disjointed campfire tunes, sparking high-pitched laughter while drinking from bottles of rye. Joe noted how their pointed leather boots kicked up dust, dirtying the edges of their gowns. Cowboys still, every one

“Nigger, who do you think you are?”

Joe blinked. He was as bare and vulnerable as the day he was born

“Who do you think you are?”

Joseph Samuels born of Douglass and Ruth. An uncherished son

A hood covered the man's face. When a breeze lifted the cotton, Joe could see blunted roots from the man's morning shave. He smelled a licorice-scented pomade. But it was the eyes—Harry Houdini eyes—wide, focused, and gray, staring deep into his soul that unnerved him

“Who do you think you are, boy?”

Joe longed to disappear magically, to confound everyone and have them pay due reverence. He was extraordinary, special. But, today, he'd settle for a simple escape from metal

Joe unclasped his fingers. It was time for the Houdini flair—time to undo galvanized steel and shame these white men. Yet his hands and wrists began swelling, pressing against the metal cuffs. His fingers became stumps, unable to bend and disengage the clasp. He felt his panic rising again

“Who do you think you are?”


The ghosts multiplied, fertile as high-plains rabbits. Wind whipped their robes, making them look like white-water foam rushing toward him

His hands and wrists were engorged—metal cut into his expanding skin. Blood pooled on caked soil. A squat ghost threw the contents of a bucket at him. At first, the wet splashing against his skin, into the dank crevices of his arms and legs, felt good. Then the smell drew up his nose: gasoline

The man with the Houdini eyes struck a match on his boot

Joe started screaming. It was all a matter of will

The flame was tossed. “Burn your black ass in hell.”

A roar rose from the crowd, circling in to see the spectacle

Joe began screaming as waves of thick smoke washed over him, as flames peeled back his skin, consuming his swollen hands, leaving charred bone dangling in the cuffs

Sparks leaped from his skin, clinging to porch steps, the rooftops of Greenwood, before bursting into showering flames while he screeched hopelessly and helplessly, “Water.”


“That's right. You better get your black self out of bed. You think you can sleep all day?”

Sheets wet and tangled from his dreaming, Joe Samuels woke to a bright morning.

“Damn you, Hildy. You crazy?” Joe was trembling, sitting upright, gasping from the cold water thrown onto his face. “You think I'm drunk?”

“You were drunk with dreaming. What's the difference?” Hildy set the pitcher by its basin. “I'm not going to make breakfast twice today.”

“The way you cook I don't need to eat.”

“Then don't.” She turned toward the steep stairs.

“Hildy, I'm sorry,” Joe called.

He heard: “
Who do you think you are?
” Eyes squeezed, he gripped the metal bedpost, feeling bile rise in his throat.


“I'm all right.” His chin grazed his chest. “I'm all right.”

“Should I call the doctor?”

“No. I'll be all right.” Joe managed a grin. “Couldn't you have used warm water?”

Hildy smiled, hands deep in her apron, her hair tucked beneath a lace cap. Joe was struck by how much his sister looked like a servant. Thick, black-soled shoes. Rough hands. At least she wasn't useless, Joe thought. She didn't spend her days, like Emmaline, dressing for one social after the next. Father said they could afford servants: “Maids, cooks. Any number you want.” But Hildy wouldn't have it, and Joe figured maybe she was the smart one—buttering toast, serving coffee instead of sitting, brooding at the family meals.

“You're in enough hot water already,” Hildy murmured. “Father's not particularly happy this morning. I thought a little water was better than his fist.”

Joe stood, his mind already racing toward the daily confrontation with his father.

Hildy threw a towel at him. “Show some shame, little brother. Nobody needs to see your naked self.”

Joe shrugged, wrapping the striped towel about his waist. “Nothing new to see. You're the one who changed my diapers. Even taught me how to stand and aim.”

Hildy blushed and, for the second time, Joe found himself saying, “I'm sorry.” He hadn't meant to disrespect Hildy. He was certain Hildy was the only one at home who loved him.

Joe moved toward the dormer window, peering through the chintz curtains his mother had purchased from a Sears catalog. Ten years ago, his father had built the “tallest black man's house” and Joe had claimed the attic as his bedroom. He had a crow's-eye view of the city and, as a boy, it'd been his glorious kingdom. Growing up, Mr. Jackson had slipped him pennies; Miss Lu, slices of peach pie. Abe had a special chair for him on his porch. Everyone seemed to understand (especially during the war) his need to dawdle after school, to hear tall tales, to delay going home. Lying Man would spin him in the barber's chair until he was too dizzy to feel anything other than happiness.

Joe stared at the horizon: a flock of crows, perched along rooftops, pecked at the shingles.

Joe shivered, feeling he'd failed. He was no Houdini. Dread was sniffing at his heels and he didn't know why. He only knew his restless longing and the shattering nightmare of the last few days.

He saw Hildy's reflection in the window. Her eyes were brown and wide, looking ready to leap from her face. As a child, he used to bat his fists at her eyes, shudder with glee at seeing himself locked in her irises. Now he couldn't see himself at all.

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