Authors: Steve Yarbrough
Tags: #Historical, #Fiction
Table of Contents
For my father
Doubt is a noble thing . . . . The most fervent people are doubters.
Acclaim for Steve Yarbrough’s
Prisoners of War
“Yarbrough . . . is a sophisticated, gentle writer with a gift for subtlety. The latent heat of a Delta autumn wafts through his Southern memories. . . . His characters are superbly fleshed out, and his setting so richly drawn that when the action crosses the county line late in the book, the reader might feel as if he is leaving his own hometown.”
The Denver Post
“We can’t help but see ourselves in [these characters], feeling the shackles of our own time and circumstances around our own ankles and wrists. . . . A compelling story [that] provides a mirror for us to look back at ourselves, at our own worlds and lives, more carefully.”
“The rural South of Steve Yarbrough’s hypnotic third novel,
Prisoners of War
, is like nothing you’ve ever seen in Southern letters. . . . Yarbrough weaves a page-turner.”
Ft. Myers News-Press
“Animated by superbly fleshed-out characters and richly drawn settings.”
—San Jose Mercury News
“With a group of characters vivid, tainted, shell-shocked but still by god breathing, Steve Yarbrough has delivered the best book of his impressive career. What knocked my wind out about
Prisoners of War
is the magnificent contrast of German soldiers on the Mississippi landscape. What an idea, and how perfectly realized. What a stunning, cathartic, body blow of a novel. If this one doesn’t put Yarbrough on the map, we ought to change maps.”
“As Steve Yarbrough proves in his engrossing new novel, great war stories don’t have to be set on the front lines. . . . A knockout.”
“This writer, author of the stunning book
, gets as much mileage from his little patch of Mississippi as Thoreau did from Walden.”
The Roanoke Times
“With subtlety, compassion and detachment Yarbrough teases out the notion that the line separating those who can be saved from those who cannot is very fine and too easily crossed.”
The Commercial Appeal
THE ROLLING STORE was one of two old school buses his uncle Alvin had bought after they were deemed unsafe to haul children. The one Dan drove in the summer of 1943 had a couple holes in the floorboard. Half the time the starter wouldn’t work, and then he’d have to put the transmission in neutral, get out and turn the hand crank. The rear wheels, which had been pulled off a cotton trailer, were bigger than the ones in front, so the bus always looked like it was headed downhill.
His uncle had outfitted each bus with display cases, candy counters, a soft-drink box and a Deepfreeze. Dan and the other driver, L.C., sold farmers and hoe hands everything from chocolate bars and Nehi sodas to coal-oil lamps and radios. Gas rationing had made the routes more successful than they otherwise might have been, since a lot of folks couldn’t get into town very often.
Alvin never had any trouble getting gas, because he never had any trouble getting sugar, something the bootleggers couldn’t do without. He traded them hundred-pound sacks of it for cases of bootleg whiskey, which in turn he passed on to the members of the local rationing board. “Seem like making tough decisions gives a fellow a case of cotton mouth,” Dan had heard him say. “That’s the thirstiest bunch of doctors and lawyers and bankers I ever saw.”
His uncle had a special knack for handling people, which usually involved satisfying their appetites. You could tell a lot about a man, he always said, by watching what he put in his mouth.
Dan drove into the lot behind Alvin’s country store and parked next to the other bus. L.C. finished first every day. His route was shorter, his bus drove a little better and he generally ignored the thirty-five-mile-an-hour speed limit.
Dan had asked him once if he didn’t feel bad about breaking the law when everybody else was trying to conserve gas for the troops, and L.C. had wrinkled his nose, as he was apt to whenever something amused him. “Let me ask you, Dan,” he said. “Do your uncle feel bad about breaking the law?”
“He don’t break it. He just bends it a little.”
L.C. laughed. “For him, it bends. But for a nigger, it just too stiff. We working with a lot less flexibility than y’all are.”
L.C. said y’all a lot, and we, constantly calling attention to the differences between them. He also liked to employ a phrase he’d heard last Easter, when his momma made him go to church:
“That’s what the preacher say we living in, Dan. You got your universe, I got mine. I see you spinning by, you see me, time to time we both wave, say hey. But never the twain shall meet—and that last part come straight from the Bible.” When Dan protested that he couldn’t see what the parallel-universe theory had to do with Easter, L.C. said, “Course not. Over there in y’all’s universe, Easter mean colored eggs. But we ain’t got no eggs to color. Sure enough interested in that rising part, though.”
Today, as always, L.C. was waiting for him, sitting atop the propane tank, his dusty work shoes lying on the ground and his big toe protruding from a hole in one sock. “How much you sold, Dan?”
“Took in close to thirty dollars.”
L.C. whistled. “That’s the profitable route. I had me that route, I’d be tempted to steal your old uncle blind.”
“You could steal from him anyway, if you got a mind to.”
“Naw. I take from him, he might take from me.”
“What could he take? You ain’t got nothing anyway, far as I can tell.”
“Got myself. He could take and give it to the army.”
“Army don’t want it. They got all the bus drivers they need. Army wants fighting men.”
“Army’ll make the niggers fight, before it’s all said and done. You know old Jeff Davis wanted the same thing in the Civil War, make the niggers march with Robert Lee?”
“Who told you that?”
L.C. looked at him. “Just imagine my granddaddy covering your granddaddy’s ass while he go crawling out the bushes toward them Yankees.”
“You ain’t got a granddaddy.”
“Everybody got a granddaddy,” L.C. said. You could almost see the curtain falling over his face. Sooner or later, the banter always turned serious, and Dan could never quite figure out when it was going to happen in time to shut his mouth.
L.C. jumped down, all business now, and slipped on his shoes. Together, they carried the small Deepfreezes off the buses and balanced them, one at a time, on a handcart, then rolled them over to the tractor shed that served as his uncle’s warehouse and plugged them in. Next day they’d restock them with ice-cream sandwiches, fruit Popsicles, pig tails and neck bones.
After they washed up at the sink, L.C. said he was going home, and he set off down the road. Dan walked around to the front of the store and saw his father’s old pickup parked near the porch. He opened the screen door and stepped inside.
The place smelled of molasses, salt meat, leather and patent medicine. Horse collars, trace chains and hame straps hung on the walls, and the shelves were filled with canned goods and hardware. Toward the rear, stacked almost to the ceiling, were several hundred cases of sanitary napkins—all the sanitary napkins, his uncle said, in the Delta. He’d concocted some deal with a distributor over in Greenville that allowed him, at least briefly, to corner the market, and women had been streaming into the store for days, coming in groups of four and five from as far away as Clarksdale and Yazoo City, buying in bulk.
The store was empty except for L.C.’s momma, Rosetta, who sat behind the cash register, fanning herself with a copy of Negro Digest. “Where L.C. go off to?” she asked.
“Went on home.”
“Now that ain’t nothing but a bald-face lie.” Her eyes followed a fly that buzzed back and forth above the till. “Question is, L.C. lie to you or get you to lie to me?”
Dan walked over to the counter, lifted the top off a big jar and grabbed a handful of oatmeal cookies. “I don’t believe L.C. lies to me,” he said.
“Course he do. And lying within limits is all right.”
“That ain’t what it says in the Bible.”
“Colored folks’ Bible or white folks’?”
“I thought we was all using the same one.”
The fly made the mistake of lighting on the counter. Rosetta reached over with her magazine and swatted it. “Y’all’s Bible may be the same book,” she said, flicking the body off the cover, “but the words got a whole different meaning.”
“You saying it’s all right for L.C. to lie to white folks but not colored?”
“There’s niggers I’ve knowed forty years and ain’t yet spoke a word of truth to. I’m saying it’s not all right to lie to his
“Our Bible don’t make them kinds of distinctions,” Dan said. “I reckon the Lord was scared we’d get confused.” Stuffing a cookie into his mouth, he walked over to the back of the store and opened the door to his uncle’s office.
His mother was sitting on the edge of his desk, her long, smooth legs hanging off the far side, and his uncle was in the coaster chair. It looked like maybe they’d been disagreeing about something, because his mother’s face was flushed. She had the milky white complexion that often accompanies red hair, and if she got agitated, you could always tell.
His uncle, though, seemed perfectly calm, maybe even a little amused. His hands were locked behind his head, and he’d rocked back in the coaster chair and crossed his legs. One end of his mustache was arched just a little, like he was doing his best not to grin. “How’d it go today, partner?” he said.
“Not too bad. I’m starting to have a problem with that Deepfreeze, though.”
“What kind of problem?”
“Had to throw out a few Popsicles and some of the ice cream—the stuff thawed out and started running. That freezer may have a bad seal on it.”
“Naw, there ain’t nothing wrong with that freezer. It’s just too damn hot. Thermometer on the wall outside hit a hundred by three o’clock.” Alvin’s eyes had that little gleam that appeared whenever he’d figured out a way to get something for nothing. “Tell you what you do, Daniel. You know the old gin up there at Fairway Crossroads?”
“The one that went out of business?”
“Yep. You probably get to Fairway along about eating time. Well, I happen to know the power’s still on at the gin. So tomorrow, carry you an extension cord and pull up there to the loading dock. The outlet’s right there beside the door to the press room. Plug that Deepfreeze in and set back and eat you a good long lunch, and when you’re through, that freezer’ll be nice and cold again.”
His mother looked over at him. “You may have to run me up to Memphis the beginning of next week, Dan. I was trying to get your uncle to do it, but he claims he doesn’t have time.”
“No,” Alvin said, “I didn’t say I don’t have time. I said I
not have time. I said just wait a little while and we’ll see.”
“I don’t know that I can wait. That ad in the
said they’d be getting the fabric on Monday. It’ll go in no time.” She got down off the desk and picked up her purse. “I guess pretty soon, the direction things are headed, we’ll all be naked.”
The springs in Alvin’s chair squeaked as he rocked forward and stood up. Taking his cup, giving it a quick sniff, he walked over to the metal urn, drew himself some coffee and took a long swallow. “I seriously doubt,” he said, “that anybody’s going naked.”