Authors: Jewell Parker Rhodes
oe spun blindly through the revolving glass door, stumbled, and fell onto the sidewalk, rolling into the legs of a man carrying a suitcase. The suitcase skittered into the gutter, popped open, spilling shirts, ties, a shaving kit, and postcards. Joe lay face down on the pavement, blood dripping from his lip. He could hear the slap-slap of the revolving door, see cards of Tulsa's skyscrapers, oil rigs, gingerbread homes, and herding cowboys, fluttering to the ground. Joe knew he was as good as dead.
“Son of a bitch.” The man was bending over him, shaking his fist, cursing, “Nigger, look what you've done.”
They'd take him now. He was good as dead. His legs felt weighted; he was sinking. “
Run, Joe, run
.” Was it his voice or Henry's?
“Look what you done, nigger.” Stubby hands grabbed his collar.
“You gotta run, Joe. Escape.”
He might be as good as dead, but they had to catch him first.
“Who do you think you are, nigger?”
Scrambling up, Joe shoved the irate man and ran. Ran as if the devil
was tracking himâran, breathless, his heart racing, his mouth soured by fear. “Henry!” he called, thinking he might sight his brother. “Henry!”
He reached an alleyway just as an angry crowd exploded from the Ambrose. “Nigger took him a white woman!”
Joe nearly tripped as he skated around the corner into the alley.
“There he goes!”
Joe ran harder, dodging a delivery van coming up the alley, seeing the driver's surprised expression, just managing to slip between the van and the building's brick wall. The van's brakes squealed as he flew down another alley.
A song started running through his head:
Run, nigger, run
The paterrollers come
Run, nigger, run
The paterrollers come
Before his stroke, Tyler would circle the garden, singing: “
Run, nigger, run. The paterrollers come
.” Generations of slaves had escaped from the white man. Running from patrols of men and dogs. Tyler had done itârun through cotton fields, swamps, just like Joe was running. His shadow stretched like tar; clouds glowed yellow. Joe remembered celebrating Juneteenth, marching behind Tyler in the yard, chanting, “
Run, nigger, run. Run, nigger, run
.” Just ten, his voice mimicked Tyler's bass:
Dis nigger run, he run his best
Stuck his head in a hornet's nest
Jumped de fence and run fru de paster
white man run, but nigger run faster
Father had stripped his pants and beat him with his belt.
Joe exited the alley onto Main, drawing stares from pedestrians as he ran past the courthouse. He ran in the street, outpacing a carriage and its horse. He skirted round cars. Dodged produce trucks. Let himself fly.
“Over there. He's over there. Near the courthouse.”
Joe looked back, seeing shadows of men pointing, hearing a steady pounding, feeling tremors beneath his feet. A car horn blared. “Damn nigger. Get out the way.”
He cut across Courthouse Square leaping over a bench, frightening a Negro woman feeding crackers to a white baby. He flew over the grass, smacking his hand against the oak trunks, darting left, right. He ran past fashionable women, avoiding any men. Even old men resting their joints on benches. The wind carried voices: “What's that nigger doing running?”
He'd been taught to fear this moment. Never be a colored boy hunted. Never have cause to run from a white man.
“You are Joseph David Samuels,” Father hollered between belt swings. “No paterrollers here.” Slap. “You areâ¦” Slap. “Joseph David Samuels.” Slap. Slap. Welts grew on his back
Joseph David Samuels. Like his brother was Henry Martin Samuels. They were supposed to be safe. Safe because they weren't ordinary colored boys. They were Douglass Abraham Samuels' sons.
Joe laughed harshly, his breath exploding in bursts. His side ached. What would Father think now? His brother dead, killed by pale-faced Germans, and him running for his life.
Suddenly Joe wasn't afraid. Being hunted, running like Tyler had, like so many others had from slavery, released him from his dread.
Joe stumbled, his hand scraped the ground. “Run,” he told himself. “Run.”
Maybe Henry had felt this too, the sheer exhilaration of knowing there was nothing left to dread. Joe felt free.
He cut left at the Square's edge, heading northeast, away from the business district, toward Greenwood. He breathed, deep and even. He could feel the pain in his side easing. He could do this.
Relax. Breathe like Houdini
. He felt powerful, strong.
He'd escaped the Ambrose Building, outrun the crowd. He'd escape from Tulsa. Nothing bound him now. Not even his father.
His gait stretched. Inhale. Exhale. His arms swung free and easy. He was the center of a blur of motion. He left the main roads, avoiding Greenwood and Archer, cutting across the railroad tracks, down Tulsa's back alleys. He was heading home.
Sweat dusted his neck and back.
He wanted to tell Tyler he'd heard the paterrollers. He'd heard: “
Run, nigger, run
.” And he'd done it. He'd done it good. He'd outrun the paterrollers. He'd outraced them all.
The sky was burnt orange. Day was nearly done. He ran skillfully, dodging clotheslines, vaulting fences, his breath roaring like surf in his ears.
et me through. Coming through.” Sheriff Clay elbowed his way inside the crowded elevator. The external doors were solid but the interior resembled a gaudy cage. Ambrose, the building's owner, called his elevator girls canaries. Clay had always thought him crazy.
Bates, the building's manager, thick-jowled, gut shaking like jelly, tapped his nails incessantly against the bars. Clay guessed Bates was already worried about losing his job.
A brown-haired girl lay flat on the cage floor. Another girl,
embroidered on her pocket, was trying to use smelling salts but a white-haired man blocked her, not budging from his position, hunched over the unconscious girl.
Several menâtoo old to chase the coloredâlingered just outside the steel doors. Heads cocked, they were peering at the girl on the floor. Clay realized they were staring at the girl's crotch. Her gray skirt was hitched to her thighs. Pushing to the front, Clay saw what the men were seeingâwisps of hair, pink thighs. Underpants gone.
Clay flushed. He said, more harshly than he intended, “Is she dead?”
Shocked, the man turned, his brows pinching upward. “No.”
Recognizing Allen Thornton, Clay muttered, “Damn.” His luckâa colored on the run and Albino Allen hovering over the woman like she was some baby bird. Allen didn't know anything about how Tulsa worked.
Clay shook his head. Ambrose would have a fit. He was probably already strutting like a peacock, screaming about his reputation and honor. Everybody knew Ambrose plowed a different prostitute every night. Nonetheless, Ambrose and his oil men friends hand picked the railroad and school boards, even the county sheriff. Ambrose paid him to keep the peace.
Clay bent, laying his jacket over the woman's legs.
, her pocket said.
“Does anybody know what happened?”
“They were alone in the elevator,” said Bates, his face pained as if “alone” explained everything. A colored man, a white woman. Together. In Tulsa.
“So no one knows what happened,” said Clay, irked by Bates.
“Just the nigger and her.”
“Shit,” muttered Clay, wondering how he'd ended up here. Clay's job was to harass loiterers, keep the town respectable by jailing drunks and any coloreds who weren't shining shoes or cleaning houses in Tulsa. And, as he was often reminded, to look the other way when the KKK did its haul. The worst had been the lynching of David Reubens. Ambrose told him to take a day off. To his shame, he'd gone hunting in the hills.
“Can't this wait?” asked Allen. “She needs care.”
Clay remembered Allen coming to the jail after Reubens' lynching and cursing him. Overturning chairs, Allen had bellowed repeatedly, “I demand justice. You know damn well who did it.” Clay had his deputies throw him out and he'd listened to them scuffling, battering Allen in the back alley, before letting him go. He hadn't forgiven himself for that either.
“You know her?”
“Yes.” Allen crouched back on his heels.
“Bring her 'round,” said Clay.
Louise, flashing a triumphant glance at Allen, pressed the vial under Mary's nose.
Mary woke up howling. Everyone fell back; the sound redoubled in the tight space. Louise retreated, pressing her salts to her bosom. Bates slammed his fist into his palm. The howl crescendoed, flying out through the lobby. Clay gritted his teeth. He remembered such screams from the war, remembered himself howling like a fiend when a man's head landed in his lap.
An old man murmured, “Nigger better run. Better run good.”
“Hush.” Mary gulped air. “Hush.” She covered her mouth with her hands.
“Maryâ” Allen reached for her.
“Let go. Let go my hands.” She scooted backward, her hands striking the air, her eyes wide and staring. “Please. Please let me go.”
“Maryâ” Allen's arms snaked around her.
“Let go,” she screamed. “Let me go.” She clung to the bars, sobbing.
“Let her go,” said Clay.
Allen flinched. “She's upset, can't you see that? She thinks I'mâ”
“I'd feel the same way if a colored touched me,” said Louise. “Wouldn't trust any man.”
Arms across her abdomen, her brow touching her knees, Mary whimpered, “Ma. Please, Ma.”
Clay felt sorry for her. There were scratches on Mary's legs and hands. Bruises on her wrists.
Bring the nigger in. Case solved. Simple
. Mud speckled her hem. Tangled hair curtained her face. Her shoe was missing its heel. Clay knew nothing was simple. He stooped low.
Allen was cooing, “Mary, Mary.” She wrestled away her hands. “Let go my hands. I'm not beautiful. I'm not.”
“It's a damn shame,” said Louise.
Mary sobbed harder. Clay reached forward and slapped her.
Allen swore. “There's no need to hit her. She's been through enough.”
“She's hysterical,” said Clay. “I need her to talk.”
Mary hiccuped, “Hush.”
“I'll take care of her,” said Allen.
Ignoring him, Clay moved close to Mary. “There's a boy running for his life. Can you tell me anything?”
“He touched you, didn't he? Took your panties and touched you,” said one of the old men.
Mary bit her lip.
“I need you to answer me, ma'am.”
“A proper woman don't talk about such things,” said Louise, pulling at her collar.
Clay studied Mary. She must be in shock, he thought. She looked at him strangely, lines furrowing her plain face.
“We've never had anything like this before,” said Bates. “Niggers always take the stairs. He should've been on the stairs.”
“How long were they together?” asked Clay, looking up at Bates.
“Long enough,” said Bates.
“Two minutes. Maybe four,” said Allen. “Not long enoughâ”
Allen shook his head.
Whimpering, Mary collapsed against Allen. Clay thought it curious that Allen buried his face in the girl's hair. Kissed her dull strands. Clay shrugged. He didn't care who aroused Allen's interests, even a vacant-eyed girl. Everybody had their tastes: Ambrose for big-bosomed girls; his friend, Gainey, wanted them black. Colored men supposedly liked them light-skinned or white.
Clay could see Miss Louise's toes, Bates' perfectly shined shoes, Mary's bruised knees. The elevator was hot. Airless. Maybe six by four, if that. Clay looked up. A minichandelier dangling from the apex cast slivers of light.
Why take a woman here? A cage within a box. The chute was lined with mirrors. When the “bird cage” rose, everyone got to see themselves behind gilded bars. Ambrose's fancy. Images multiplied like fun house mirrors. A white man would be mad to rape a girl here. A colored would have to be desperate to die.
Clay stood. “I can think of smarter places for a rape.”
“Nigger's got to pay,” said Bates.
“Are you telling me my job?”
“You're wasting time.” Bates squinted. “Ambrose won't like it.”
“The girl hasn't accused anybody.”
“We all saw it, didn't we?” Bates said, his hand sweeping, taking in the nodding, elderly men who on ordinary days rode the elevator to
offices where they bartered oil rights, managed trust accounts, and discussed wills.
“What did you see?” asked Clay, softly. “I mean, that you can testify to? Can you see past events? Can you see through steel?” He stared the men down. Glances shifted, feet shuffled. Funny fools, salivating at the thought of sex. “I'm in charge of this investigation.”
Bates peered at him like an old pig. “Ambrose is going to be upset.”
“Nigger's got to pay,” said Bates, stubbornly. The old men nodded.
Clay ached behind his eyes. He yearned for bourbon.
Bring the nigger in. Case closed
. “Who we talking about?”
“Joe. One of our shoeshines,” Bates replied. “Douglass Samuels' son.”
“The banker?” Clay couldn't hide his surprise. “What's a banker's son doing shining shoes?”
“Just because a nigger has money, don't mean he's got sense. He's like any other nigger. Wanted a white woman. He deserves hanging.” Others murmured agreement. “Niggers been too riled since the war.”
Bates slowly smiled and it was this, more than anything, that made Clay want to hit him. Cowards like Bates never made it to the war. But they liked the notion of blood flowing. Bates wore klansmen robes, keeping alive a war against coloreds, reds, unionizers, and anyone else Ambrose might dislike.
“I can haul your ass to jail, Bates. Inciting a riot.”
“I can say what I damn well please. Got as much right as the next.”
Clay grabbed Bates' collar, feeling his sharp intake of breath, his Adam's apple bobbing. “The boy'd have to be crazy to try anything here. In an office building. Not just any building. Ambrose's.”
“Niggers ain't smart. Wanted a feel, a taste. Joe gave me trouble all the time. Talking back to customers.”
“Something's not right,” said Clay, letting go of Bates.
“Right, hellâthings ain't been right since the war. Niggers thinking this is France. Thinking they can do what they want.”
“They're always looking at us,” Louise whispered. Her words stopped them dead.
Clay pinched the flesh between his eyes. Shit.
. Joe Samuels didn't have a chance.
Allen lifted Mary up; her head bobbled, her jaw opened, and her tongue pressed forward in a wordless “ah.”
“She's coming with me,” Allen said, daring anyone to stop him. He pushed past Clay and Bates.
“A nigger's done felt her up. Raped her he did. Took a white woman,” proclaimed an old man tapping his cane, his voice echoing in the high-ceilinged lobby.
Bates clutched Clay's arm. “Nigger's on the run. Knows he's guilty.”
“Maybe,” said Clay, pulling free of Bates.
“What are you going to do, Sheriff?”
“I'll be bringing him in. For questioning, at least.”
Clay saw Louise's reflection preening, her fingers patting the curve of her hips. “Go home, Louise,” Clay said. “You've been a great help.” She looked at him quizzically then scooted past.
“Joe gave me trouble all the time,” Bates complained. “Talking back. Doing bad shines. Didn't know his place.”
Ignoring Bates, Clay scooped up his jacket.
Clay sighted Allen at the revolving door, trying to spin through without putting Mary down.
“Allen,” he called out. “What's her name?” He could ask Bates but he wanted to find out whether Allen knew it. “What's her name? Her people's name. Maryâwhat?”
“Go to hell, Clay,” Allen called back, maneuvering his and Mary's bodies sideways through the revolving glass.
Clay chuckled. Then turned, “You still here, Bates?”
He listened to Bates' soles slapping on marble, watched the old men shuffling across the floor. Louise clutched herself dramatically, giving a sidelong glance to two colored men watching the drama from the lobby's far side.
Bates hollered, “Louise, get on now.” He shooed the shoeshines like they were pesky flies.
Clay stared into the elevator and at himself, reflected in the mirrored wall behind the cage. He didn't look any different. Weak chin. Hair longer than was considered genteel. Eyes cloudy from too much drink. Limbs soft since the war. A perfect specimen for a rich man's sheriff.
He stepped inside the elevator's belly, stretching his arms to steady
himself against the bars. He'd better get moving. He'd have to find Samuels before the mob did.
He studied the parquet floor. He didn't see panties. No cotton or lace like he'd seen on dead whores. In France, the women wore silk. He felt aroused remembering Mary's open legs. He didn't like to think of any man, colored or white, taking advantage of a woman.
He saw a glint of silver. He stooped and lifted a pair of handcuffs. Professional. Maybe even from his own jail. He heard a step behind him, and without thinking, he stuffed the cuffs into his pocket. “I thought I told youâ”
It wasn't Bates. Clay saw a dark man, rail thin, his pants stained with polish. “Shine, Sheriff?”
The man was sizing him up, measuring him like they were equals. Adversaries.
Clay snapped, “Did you think I wouldn't get to you? I'm conducting this investigation. I would've gotten to you in my own good time.”
The man angled his head disbelievingly.
“What's your name?” Clay asked.
The man stared back balefully.
“I'm looking to help. See that justice is done. Where'd he go? Joe Samuels, is it? Tell me where he went.” Except for a nerve quivering beneath his eye, Clay thought the man had become stone. “Come on. Help the boy out.”
The man advanced. Clay's hand went instinctively to his gun.
“Joe's been working here for over a year,” the man hissed. “You come in once a week. Half that time, Joe's given you a shine. Gave you one last week. Remember what he looks like, Sheriff? Tall? Short? Light or dark brown? You remember anything about him? Joe even told you a joke. Remember? You said it was the best joke you ever heard.”
Clay struggled to raise an image. Other than Joe being colored, Clay couldn't remember a damn thing.
“I didn't think so.” The man set his jaw. “You're no different than any other white man.”
“So, I forgot. I can't remember every colored I meet. Where's he now? Where's Joe now?”
“You ever take the stairs to pee, Sheriff? Thirteen floors?” The man
spat. “Nickel for a shine, Sheriff. That's all I tell men like you.” He turned, walking away.
“Damn.” Clay rubbed his brow, feeling a raging ache starting. He should've stayed in bed this morning, drunk himself silly. His only hope was that the boy escaped Tulsa altogether. If Joe was never found, Clay wouldn't have to decide what to do with him.