Read Magic City Online

Authors: Jewell Parker Rhodes

Magic City (9 page)

BOOK: Magic City
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T
yler, Tyler!” Joe bounded up the stairs, two, three at a time. The staircase seemed to curve forever. “Tyler!” His side hurt.

“Joe, what are you doing home?”

The clipped voice stopped his momentum. Joe spun around, teetering, his hand gripping the banister. “Hello, Hildy,” he gasped, seeing his sister at the bottom of the steps.

“Tyler's sleeping. What are you doing home? What's happened?”

“The most wonderful thing.” Joe collapsed against the railing, sweat trickling from his forehead.

“What?” she nervously wiped her flour-smeared hands onto her apron. “Tell me.”

“I escaped.”

“What are you talking about? Escaped?” Her brows arched. “Joe?” Hildy moved quickly up the steps. “You're hurt. You need a plaster for your cheek.” Delicately, she touched his skin. “Joe, is somebody after you?”

Joe caught his sister's hand and pressed it to his lips. “I ran for miles,” he said wonderingly.

“Who from, Joe?”

“White men, Hildy. A whole passel of 'em.” He chuckled. “White and bright like the noonday sun.”

“What're you doing here, Joe?”

“I came home.”

“It's the first place they'll come. You've got to leave, Joe.”

“I came to see Tyler.”

“Damnit, Joe, you've got to get up.”

“I need to see Tyler.”

“There isn't time. Get up, Joe. Run.” She tried dragging him down the stairs.

“Hildy, let go—”

“White men lynch Negroes. You've gotta run, Joe. You can't stop running.” Hildy tugged desperately. She pounded him with her fists. “Damn you, Joe. You think I took care of you all these years so you could get hung. You gotta run, Joe.”

“Hildy, no, you don't understand—”

“You gotta run.”

“I love you, Hildy.”

Hildy stopped. “Joe,” she asked, insistent, “why won't you run?”

“I've got to see Tyler.”

“They'll catch you.”

“They won't.”

“Who won't?” asked Emmaline, leaning over the banister, her hair twisted around curling rags.

“Lord,” muttered Hildy. “Mother's not far behind.”

His mother appeared, elegant, at the top of the stairs. “What's going on here? Aren't you supposed to be working, Joe?”

“Somebody's chasing him,” hollered Emmaline, leaning over the banister.

“What did you do, Joe?”

“Mother—” warned Hildy.

“Gambling? If you think your father will pay your gambling debts, you're mistaken.”

“I don't owe anybody.”

“What did you do?”

“Nothing.”

Her lips scrunched into a pout. “You must've done something.”

“If Joe says he's done nothing, he's done nothing,” said Hildy. “There's some misunderstanding, Mother.”

“A woman then,” she countered.

“It doesn't matter. Joe's got to get out of here.”

Joe watched his mother descend the stairs, her nose tilting upward with distaste. “You're just like your father,” she said scathingly. “Your brother, too, gone to hell.”

In the entryway, the chandelier swayed slightly
. Joe swallowed.
Someone passed him on the stairs
. “I've got to see Tyler,” he murmured.

“Not until you explain yourself,” Mother said, digging her nails into his forearm. “Not until you explain the shame you've brought to us.”

“Wasn't your magic any good, Joe?” mocked Emmaline from above.

“You have no respect for privilege,” Mother berated him. “No respect for history. You've learned barbarous behavior from your father's people. Dirty, illiterate slaves. My family was always respectable. Always free coloreds. New Orleans Creoles.”

“Mother!” shouted Hildy.

“You. Henry. Your father. Every one of you a disappointment. Each of you bringing this family shame.”

“Stop it, Mother!”

Joe staggered back against the wall. He'd never seen his mother's face so ugly. “I'm sorry, Mother. I never meant to hurt anyone.” A yellow rose appeared in his hand.

She crossed her arms. “Emmaline, get your father. Tell him I want him home. Tell him Joe's gone wild. Tell him Joe's disgraced us.”

Joe dropped the rose. He climbed the steep stairs, moving beyond his silk-robed mother.

Emmaline stared at him curiously as he reached the second floor landing.

“Joe—” She caught his arm. “What's wrong? Can I help?”

Joe studied his sister's pinched face. She looked like Mother. Shadows lay beneath her eyes; fine lines tugged at her mouth.

“Get Father, Emmy,” murmured Joe. “Tell him to bring roses for you and Mother.”

“You're a fool, Joe.”

“Do you believe in ghosts, Emmy?”

“Emmaline, if you love him at all—” Hildy pleaded. “Tell him—tell him he's got to run. White men are chasing him.”

Joe chuckled, “Nigger run faster.”

“I'll get Father.”

“Hurry, Emmaline,” his mother ordered. “Your father will stop this nonsense.”

Joe laughed. “That's right,” he shouted down the stairs. “Father doesn't own a bank for nothing. He's a big man. The biggest Negro in Tulsa.”

“Joe, don't you care about anything?” wept Hildy. “Don't you care about your life?”

Joe raised a finger. “Sssh. Don't worry, Hildy. I've outrun the paterrollers.”

He opened Tyler's door and stepped into a dim world, smelling of dust, menthol, and urine. Drawn curtains kept the ruby furniture from fading, kept out the fresh air.

“Tyler—” Tyler's bed dominated the room: white sheets, white pillow cases, white ruffles on the base. Sheets thrown back, wearing white pajamas, Tyler looked dried and twisted like a blackened stump. His eyelids twitched with dreams.

Joe's confidence had fled. He was wearied by the run, his mother's bitterness, wearied by trying to escape a nightmare. “Tyler,” he whispered.

He searched the room. The walls were covered with dozens of paintings of the same landscape—rows upon rows, acres of wheat captured at sunrise, sunset, high noon. Joe shook his head.

He looked at Tyler. He needed to ask him something, but couldn't remember what. He couldn't remember what he was doing, why he was here. He'd run the distance.

Tyler was incapable of running. Incapable of leaving his bed except with the help of a son who carried him downstairs for meals and a daughter-in-law who pushed him onto the porch, locking his chair's wheels, for an hour's sun.

When Joe was born, Tyler had already been too old to play marbles, give him piggy rides, or eat sweet corn. Except for one Juneteenth when he'd marched with his grandson, before his stroke, Tyler had spent his days painting the same lush fields.

“Tyler.” Joe sat on the four-poster bed. He straightened Tyler's brittle legs. Joe tapped his hands on his lap, softly chanting, “Run, nigger, run. The paterrollers come.”

Tyler grunted.

“Run, nigger, run. The paterrollers come.”

Tyler's mouth crooked into a smile. A Bible, a glass, and pitcher were on the bed stand.

Joe bent, staring into cloudy brown eyes. “I did good today. You would've been proud. I escaped the slave man.”

Tyler shook his head, his mouth salivating.

“I did good.”

Tyler's clawed fist hit the mattress. “Tyler?” Joe gripped his hand, feeling the toughened skin, the gnarled bones. “Tyler?” He laid his head on his grandfather's chest. Feeling the frail ribs, listening to an erratic heart, Joe murmured, “Tyler? Did you ever feel as free as when you ran? When you escaped?”

“He can't talk.”

“I
know
, Hildy.” Joe watched Tyler's face—his lashes fluttering, his lips stretching paper-thin skin. “You don't have to tell me what I already know.”

“Then why bother, Joe?”

“You see him, don't you?” he asked irritably. “He's not dead yet. He understands. If it hadn't been for Tyler escaping slavery, we wouldn't be here.”

“He was freed, Joe.” Hildy moved to the bedpost.

“What are you talking about?”

“Emmaline's right. You're a complete fool. Men chasing you and all you can do is sit.”

“He outwitted them all.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Tyler. He escaped.”

“Tyler was freed,” Hildy snapped back. “The only running he did was in the land rush to get the acres.”

“What acres? What are you talking about?”

“Here's a canteen, Joe. It's Henry's. You need to run. I figure you've got minutes. Five to ten at most, somebody's going to be here. White folks aren't all slow.”

“What land?”

Tyler worked his jaw, trying to speak.

“Sooners, Joe!” Hildy said exasperated. “Ex-slaves coming to Tulsa. Every thief, every poor white man racing to stake a claim. ‘Like rabbits,' Mother always says. You
know
this, Joe. That's the history Mother can't stand. Said it was disgraceful to be running after God's land. Squatting on dirt. Said it wasn't respectable.”

“But Juneteenth. His song about running from the paterrollers.”

“It's a song, Joe.”

“Joe—the sheriff is here!” Back stiff, Mother trembled just inside the door. “He's driving up. Run, Joe. I don't want a son of mine in jail.”

“I need some things.”

“No time, Joe,” said Hildy, shoving the canteen at him. “Get to the riverbed. Lena's. I'll bring food tonight.”

“I'll delay him,” Mother murmured, hurrying down the stairs.

“De…de…de—” Tyler was trying to sit up. Veins rose in his neck and forehead.

“What is it, Tyler?”

“Joe, there's no time.”

“De…de…dee—”

“Joe! Leave through the kitchen.”

Joe squeezed Tyler's hand. “I'll make it, Tyler. I'll beat the paterrollers.” He rushed past Hildy, but instead of turning down the stairs, he turned up, toward the attic.

“Joe! They're here,” Hildy shouted, flying after him.

Joe moved two, three steps at a time. The rush was inside him: quick bursts of air, his body filled with adrenaline.

His bedroom seemed foreign. Small. The ceiling angled too steeply. Cloudless sky filled the window. His sheets were still tangled from his dreaming. Opening his trunk, he grabbed his lock pick, another set of handcuffs, cards, and his two hundred dollars.

He smiled, hearing his mother shrill, “Do you know whose house this is?” He heard a low, answering murmur.

Hildy stood in the doorway, hairpins loose, hair falling to her waist, her apron awry. “You've waited too long, Joe.”

“I need to find it.”

“What, Joe? What do you need?”

He was searching rapidly through his photos.

“Joe, please.”

“Here it is.” Houdini, manacled, leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Joe folded the photo, slipped it inside his pants pocket.

He looked at Hildy. “Aren't you going to ask me if I'm guilty?”

“I don't need to, Joe.”

“Thanks, Hildy.”

The footsteps on the stairs came closer. Because he'd stopped running, dread trapped him. He licked his lips, caught a glance of himself in the mirror. A wild-eyed man. Joe couldn't figure out who he needed to be. He was so tired, so thirsty. He raised his brother's canteen, swearing he heard, “
Water
.”

“Come along, son.”

He heard his brother, “Run, Joe!”

There was nowhere to go. Sheriff Clay fell upon him. He slammed Joe's face into the floor, jerked his arms back, and locked handcuffs, good and tight, about his wrists. The canteen skittered under his bed.

Joe heard Hildy weeping. He heard his mother shouting below stairs; he heard a keening which he thought was Tyler.
He heard a sigh as soft as rain
. Sheriff Clay dragged him to his feet.
Through the window, Joe saw Henry escaping, leaping, roof to roof, across Deep Greenwood
.

“Let's go.” Sheriff Clay pulled him upright. Ashamed, Joe stared inside his trunk. Atop his magic props, photos of a grim faced Houdini, fluttered, shifting in the breeze.

G
abe made himself walk. White folks already had one nigger running. If he ran, he'd be a dead man. War was like hunting squirrels. It was more fun to shoot the ones running.

Tulsa, like France, had plenty of white men wanting to shoot him. He'd played possum in the Ambrose and except for a trampling, a few kicks to his ribs and groin, he'd escaped. Now he needed to get to Greenwood fast. He made for Courthouse Square, then cut diagonally across the well-tended park. He was behind enemy lines. If he stayed visible, he'd be less suspicious.

Gabe shook his head. Beneath twin oaks, a platform was being built for tomorrow's speeches. Greenwood men—Sam, Coolie, Wydell—were doing the hammering and sawing, setting up hundreds of wood chairs. He recognized toothless Gus planting rows of red and white carnations. A young woman with ribbons in her blonde hair was sticking tiny American flags into the bluegrass. Every few inches of flags, she'd stand up, hands shading her eyes, and shout orders at the men. “Sam, those chairs aren't straight. A little to the left, please. Gus, the
pattern is red then white…red then white. Coolie, please, will you hurry up. I cannot do everything myself.”

“Control, Private. If you want to survive, exercise control. Focus under fire, that's the thing.”

Gabe had punched his smirking, pasty-faced lieutenant in the mouth. Man didn't think Negroes knew anything. Negroes were
born
behind enemy lines. A segregated unit with an inexperienced, white officer had only proved it. Anyone dumb enough to lecture while his men dug trenches, deserved to be hit. Gabe had spent a week in the brig.

He spat on the sidewalk. The sun was heavy, streaking the trees orange-red. Mosquitoes were hustling blood. Gabe sensed the strain in the Square. Palpable like the humidity. Joe must've passed through the park. Folks, sitting on benches, watched him warily. Brown girls hustled white babies home. When he passed, Coolie's saw lost its rhythm, Sam's hammer fell silent. White men were gathering in front of the city jail. By nightfall, all the Greenwood workers would be home, doors locked, having heard about Joe and a white woman.

Lumbering, his trench coat flapping, Gabe hoped he looked too crazy for anyone to bother him. But if some fool wanted to call his bluff, he'd pull his service revolver and it would be all over. For him and the fool.


Control, Private. Yes, sir
.” He knew the routine. Eyes on the ground. Jaw loose, act stupid. Sometimes black skin worked like a charm. Germans seeing their first Negro would hesitate for a second, stupefied. A second was enough time to pierce a heart, rip intestines, or slice through an eye. He'd even got a citation for saving his lieutenant's skin.

Decoration Day. Shit, he hadn't even been invited. But that was all right. He hadn't fought for Tulsa. America. World peace. Not even Deep Greenwood. Henry hadn't wanted to go alone; so, Gabe had enlisted too.

He should've stayed in Greenwood. Married Emmaline. Fathered fat babies. Then, he never would have met Francine. Now each day he didn't blow his brains out surprised him. Henry's baby brother was giving him another chance. Payback. One brother's life for another.

Gabe quickened his pace as he turned onto Elgin. At least Joe had sense enough to run. Poof! Disappear.

He'd seen plenty of soldiers who'd quit, laid down and moaned about Jesus. But Gabe knew as long as your legs would carry you
—run
. He'd seen a man, his hand shot off, running like a streak of fire. It wasn't about cowardice, it was about cutting your losses and surviving.

Keep running, Joe. Make yourself invisible. But given time, Gabe believed, every man was found.

Gabe crossed into Greenwood, up the hill, past the tall spires of Mt. Zion into a colored world. Young boys pitched coins against the curb, a matron carried a squawking chicken to the butcher's. In front of the hardware shop, Step, the numbers runner, took penny bets. No white Tulsans here, no enemies. But it wasn't home anymore. The war had made him realize Deep Greenwood was simply where Tulsans had fenced coloreds in.

America's boys hadn't wanted to fight with coloreds. French troops had been glad of their Negro friends—“
Compères
.” Glad to eat, sleep, and fight with Negro men. When French women called, “
Bonjour, homme brave
,” they weren't seeing monkeys, coons, niggers—just men. The French reminded him every day, there was nothing wrong with loving his black skin.

March on 369th, heads high
.

He would've stayed in France if it hadn't been for Henry's haunting.

He'd lied to Joe. Dead did come back. Henry's ghost had followed him home, peering inside his parents' windows. So Gabe built his shack by the riverbed with thick pine and boarded windows. He pretended he'd dreamed Henry's face, just like late at night, sucking whiskey out of a bottle, he pretended it was only the wind, howling, kicking up dust, tossing branches at his door. Shit.

Gabe saw black script written on a gold background:
Samuels & Son
. Striding purposefully, he entered the bank. It was one place Gabe figured he wouldn't find Henry's ghost.

The glassy-eyed clerk rose quickly as Gabe walked past his desk. “Sir, can I help you? Can I help you, sir?”

“I'm going to see Samuels.”

“I'll see if he's free.”

“Get out of my way.” Without knocking, Gabe opened the door.

Samuels looked up from his desk, “Gabe?”

“Should I call the sheriff?” the clerk asked.

“Should he, Gabe?”

Gabe hated Samuels' arrogant smirk. He'd always been too dark, too poor for the Samuels' family. Too illiterate. Emmaline, as much as she tried, could never make her father believe otherwise.

“Sheriff's already busy chasing your son.”

“What the hell do you mean?”

Gabe smiled, pleased he'd unsettled Samuels. With a curt nod, Samuels dismissed his clerk.

Gabe slumped into a leather chair, rested his feet atop the mahogany desk. “Henry used to tell me about your office. Said the bank wasn't much to look at but your private office was as luxurious as any oil man's. I'd agree. Maybe too fine to let your nickel and dime customers see. Hunh, Mister Samuels?”

“What about my son?”

“The one dead? Or the one alive?”

“Nigger, if you've got something to say, say it.” He pushed Gabe's boots off the desk.

“Henry always said you were a tough bird. Said you were the meanest man alive. I guess I came to find out if it's so.”

“What's this got to do with Joe?”

Gabe shrugged. “I wasn't sure you'd care. Joe's in trouble. I need cash. At least five hundred. Else Joe'll be coming home in a pine box.”

“I'll not pay ransom.” Samuels lifted an ivory-handled pistol from his drawer. “I'll not be held up in my own bank. You've got one second to tell me about Joe.” He aimed. “One.”

Gabe relaxed into the chair. Samuels cocked the gun.

Gabe laughed. “You do not play.”

“No. I do not play.”

“Henry was right, you're one tough bird.” He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “You're going to need to be,” he said, serious. “The
sheriff's chasing Joe 'cause he was alone with a woman. The woman screamed. The
white woman
screamed.”

Samuels shut his eyes.

“It was in the Ambrose. The lobby was filled with white men who heard their flower scream. When the doors opened, the woman was on the floor and Joe was off running.

“If Joe's going to escape Tulsa, he's going to need cash. You're his father and the man with the money. I'll see that he gets it. I think I know where he'll head. But we've got to be quick.”

Samuels studied him then leaned back in his chair, the gun resting on his lap. “I don't need your help. Joe'll be fine. I'll have a word with Ambrose. He'll settle this, I'm sure. Joe needs to turn himself in.”

“Are you a damn fool?”

Emmaline burst in the room. “Father! Father, Joe—”

“He knows already,” Gabe said.

Breathless, shoulders heaving, Emmaline looked at Gabe, then her father. “Sheriff's hauled Joe to jail.”

Gabe's spirits sank. “Then we're too late to save him.”

“You did this, Gabe. I know it,” Samuels said bitterly. “The war didn't change you. You destroyed one son with your niggerish behavior. Drunkenness. Gambling.” He pointed the pistol at Gabe's heart. “I should shoot you like a dog.”

“Pull the trigger. Go on and pull it.” Gabe faced him across the desk.

“Father, don't,” Emmaline pleaded.

“Do it, man. Come on and shoot me.”

Samuels slowly lowered his gun.

“Not so easy, is it?” taunted Gabe. “Especially when you and I both know you're telling lies. You destroyed Henry before he went to France. Something you said or did—I don't know what.”

“You should've come home dead. Not my son.”

“You think that's right, Emmaline?” Gabe asked, searching her face. He found himself wishing he could turn back time, love her better. At Henry's funeral, Emmaline had stared, her eyes never leaving him, making him feel guilty and lost.

“I just wish the Gabe I knew came back.”

“You don't understand—”

“You never gave me a chance,” she said.

“That's enough Emmaline,” Samuels interrupted. “Clear out, Gabe. This is a family matter. Family business.”

“Even a man with your wealth can't change things now. Once a white woman screams and a Negro gets caught, they'll hang him. No way around it.”

“No,” Samuels rasped. “I'll speak to Ambrose.”

“It's too late for words. It's time for doing. I'm going to bust Joe out of jail”

“Ambrose and I will settle this,” Samuels shouted, his fist pounding the desk. “An agreement will be reached.”

“An agreement?” snarled Gabe. “This isn't a business deal. We're talking about your son, not a piece of land.”

“You're just an ignorant nigger. Ambrose owes me. He owes me I tell you.” He looked at Gabe and his daughter. “He'll see that Joe's safe.”

“You just can't stand that you need my help, can you?”

“What I need is for you to stay away from my family. Stay away from Emmaline, stay away from Joe.”

“Father, maybe Gabe can help.”

“Emmaline,” Samuels barked. “Gabe will get Joe killed. Another son murdered while he stands by.”

Gabe rocked back on his heels. “You fight dirty, Samuels. Henry always said you did. But I'll save Joe anyway. At least one of us is man enough to fight for him.”

“An ignorant nigger, like I said.”

Gabe turned. Emmaline grabbed his arm. “Can I help, Gabe? Maybe I could distract—”

“Not another word, Emmaline. Not another word,” Samuels bellowed. “We're going home now.”

“Please Gabe, let me help.”

Pulling free of her grasp, Gabe stuffed his hands in his pockets. “You're lovely, Emmaline,” he said softly. “Always was, always will be. You can't come. I won't get you killed trying to save Joe.”

She looked desolate.

Unable to help himself, Gabe's fingers touched her lips. “Fill a pack with food. Leave it at my shack.”

“I'll not allow it,” Samuels said.

Emmaline smiled and the sight gave Gabe strength. He'd need it. Breaking Joe out of jail had to be the stupidest thing he'd ever done.

Gabe turned to Samuels. “You're a fool and a coward, Samuels. Next time you wave a gun at me, I'll kill you.” Without a backward glance, he marched out.

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