Author Joy Boothe and I felt that this short story about love and racism in America would be a fitting way to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on his actual birthday. 11 years younger than Nelson Mandela, Dr. King would by 85 today.
Full text of the short story:
Jesse. I am five years old and I hate the name. It reminds me of my great uncle Jesse Long. A drunk. At family gatherings he would roar in, all hot stinking breath and red face. He liked to sing “Mule Train” at the top of his lungs and stomp and stumble around like he was buck dancing. He scared me to death.
One thing led to another, I guess, until he put the shotgun he used to hunt with under his chin and blew his head off. I have heard Aunt Nanny, his wife, tell how it was a hundred times. “I was cooking back-bone and liver,” she’d say, “and it was bad hot that day. And flies, Lord, I’ve never seen as many flies as we had that summer. Jesse came in from the field to eat. He was sober for once. I was surprised, but I didn’t say anything one way or the other. You know he was bad to hit me if I mentioned his drinking. Anyway, he gets his gun out of the bedroom and walks out on the back porch. ‘Nanny,’ he says, real polite, ‘would you come here, please?’ Well, just as I stepped out on the porch, he pulled the trigger. His jawbone flew at me and hung in the screen by my head.”
Now, in Sunday school, when I study about Samson slaying his enemies with the jawbone of an ass, I picture Nanny and Jesse on the screen porch.
I am eight, and Daddy is the gluing foreman at the plywood mill. Daddy prays at church to be a good man. He prays for Granddaddy and all the farmers in Alabama. I pray for my daddy to not be sad. He gets mean if he is sad too long. I like it when Daddy starts talking about a man named Jesse on his crew, mostly about what a hard worker he is or something funny he has said or done. I can tell Daddy likes him.
Our septic tank has stopped up, and Daddy says somebody from work is coming to help him dig it up. Before good daylight the next Saturday morning, I am awakened by a man’s surprised yell outside my bedroom window, followed by a deep, rolling belly laugh. Hearing it, I start laughing myself. Daddy hurries down the hall past my door and says, “That’s Jesse.” It turns out that Jesse stepped on my little sister’s rubber frog. It sounds like a big fart when you step on it.
Jesse and Daddy work in the hot sun all day long digging up the septic tank. I hear them laughing and talking like they are off fishing instead of ankle deep in stink. My sister and I carry them ice water with wooden clothespins on our noses. At lunchtime, Daddy takes two heaping plates of collards and cornbread and says he will eat on the back steps with Jesse. Now I know he really likes Jesse. We can’t have Jesse in our house because he’s a nigger.
The mill boss moves Daddy from third to second shift when I turn nine years old. Mama fixes a hot supper every night with enough extra to take to Daddy. At first I hate walking to the mill, especially on the night “Rawhide” comes on TV. I am in love with Rowdy Yates, the trail scout, and claim him as my boyfriend. My sister gets mad when I make her take the not-so-handsome old trail boss, Mr. Favor, for hers.
We leave on a porch light and head out. There’s not much light to see by as we walk down the narrow sandy-clay road. Here and there we pass a house with droves of moths beating at lit doors and windows. We sniff at the smells of fried meat, playing at guessing if the family inside is eating pork chops, chicken, or liver. Mama carries Daddy’s tin foil-covered plate in one hand and leads my sister with the other, trying to keep her from stepping on sandspurs. My sister and I fight over which one of us gets to carry Daddy’s jug of sweet Luzianne iced tea, as we scratch at welts from bug bites, blackberry briars, and stinging nettles.
The mill is made of tin, roof and walls, and the tin is rusted full of holes. Ahead of us in the night, with the lights shining through, the mill looks like the fairy castle in the storybook Mama read us when we were sick with the mumps. In a hurry to get there, I run a little ways ahead and pretend Rowdy Yates and I are riding side by side on horseback, guarding the cattle drive. I arrive itchy, my bangs plastered to my forehead with sweat.
Mama asks someone working near the door to pass word back to Daddy, who works on the finishing end. We wait outside on the loading dock with our eyes watering from the fumes of the glue that sticks the plywood together. Mama combs her hair, looking in her compact mirror. She says she wants us all to look pretty for Daddy, and tries to do something with our bangs. She puts on Avon lipstick while my sister and I kill time, poking our dirty feet at giant toad frogs, piled two and three deep under the security light. We stick our tongues out and in as fast as we can, watching the toad frogs send out sticky tongues that look as long as my yoyo string. They founder on endless swarms of mosquitoes pouring out of the swamp that pushes up to meet the mill land on one side.
Daddy comes to the door to get his supper, and the smell of the glue comes out with him. Mama snaps at Daddy and tells him to stop rubbing his eyes, that a man in his twenties should not be having headaches and backaches all the time. My sister and I look away and keep poking at the toad frogs. Daddy asks what else she thinks he could do for work with farming all dried up. He dumps the BC powder Mama brought into his tea and drinks it down in one long gulp.
Nights when Daddy is too busy, he sends Jesse out to get his supper. Jesse asks me questions and listens to me. He says he has a little girl my age. Mama laughs with us when Jesse makes sounds like toad frogs and crickets. One night Jesse says, “Honey, you want to see where your Daddy works?” Mama doesn’t look too sure, but says she guesses it is okay. Jesse swings me up on his shoulders to keep me out of the glue. He is tall and I feel like queen of the world looking at the mill from so high up. Sometimes he makes up little songs. His voice is deep. “Lord what a pity but it’s true, me and my baby done stuck like glue. Ain’t it a mess, wish I could rest, but I’m stuck like glue to you.”
I have never touched a black man before Jesse, and it surprises me the first time he picks me up, that his hands feel just like Daddy’s, warm and callused. Granny has brought me up on stories about what nigger men do to little white girls if they get the chance. Some nights I have screaming dreams about her story of turpentine niggers raping and strangling a poor little white girl who took a wrong path on her way home from school and stuffing her dead body in a hollow log. Boy, was Granny wrong, but I can’t tell her. She’d have a hissy fit if she knew Daddy let Jesse carry me through the mill.
One night Daddy comes home early from work. He looks sick and is shaking all over. He goes to the bathroom and throws up. Mama goes in with him. I hear him start crying and say, “Oh, Carolyn, oh my God. Oh my God.” Then he tells what has happened. Jesse had been working on the glue press. As Jesse set the big roller to press the plywood together, it grabbed his arm and jerked him in to the shoulder. Daddy was there in a minute, but the only way to get Jesse out was to reverse the roller. It meant cutting off Jesse’s arm. Daddy reversed the roll. Old Doctor King somehow kept Jesse from bleeding to death.
Daddy begs the mill to let Jesse keep his job, telling them that Jesse can do more with one arm than most men can do with two. But the mill lets Jesse go, bragging that they gave him two hundred dollars. Daddy says Jesse knows it isn’t right, and it makes him mad, but Jesse isn’t the kind of person to get bitter. Daddy is scared that Jesse won’t have a way to take care of his five little children. He’s been trying to make a living doing odd jobs, but it isn’t working out. Mama and Daddy yell at each other a long time one night because Daddy gave Jesse fifty dollars that Mama says we didn’t have to give. Jesse leaves town and Daddy has nightmares, jumping out of bed in his sleep and beating the wall with his fist.
I am eleven and staying at Granny’s. It is June 7, 1963. Two days ago, Daddy lost his mind while we were getting ready for Wednesday night church service. I had helped mama warm up supper and set the table, right before he shot her in the heart, then asked me if I loved him and shot himself. Now I am eating boiled peanuts and pretending to watch “I Love Lucy.”
Mostly I am staring at a vase of pompom chrysanthemums sitting on top of the TV. A widow woman neighbor of Granny’s, who smells like snuff and talcum powder, brought them. She carried on praying, spitting in an empty Prince Albert can, and calling me and my sister poor little orphans. I hear a knock and familiar voice at the back door. By the time I realize it is Jesse and go outside, he is gone.
I want to go and call after him, but Granny won’t let me. She says Jesse wanted to know if she would mind arranging a night at the funeral home when the nigger men who’d worked with Daddy could pay their last respects. She had told him that she reckoned it would be all right. I ask if she’ll take me that night so I can see Jesse. Granny looks at me like I have lost my mind and says we don’t have any business in a room full of nigger men. She says that she will make sure mama’s coffin is closed shut that night.
I have no idea what happened to Jesse, until one summer day when I am fourteen and Granny sends me to Uncle Alvin’s fish market. Uncle Alvin and Pa Sam go pole fishing on the Steinhatchee River every Thursday. The road is buckling in the sun, and tar is sticking to the bottoms of my feet. A long time before I get to the store, I smell hot fish guts from where they are cleaning the fish.
I stick my head in the door and tell them that Granny wants a mess of bream, and then I get a grape Crush and a bag of salted peanuts from the machines out front. I’ve just dumped the peanuts in the cold drink when I hear his laugh and, “Lord, what a pity, but it’s true, me and my baby done stuck like glue.”
I want to cry, to hug him, to have him put me up on his shoulders. There are other people around, so all I can say is, “Hey, Jesse.” I pray that the other people will finish their business and move on. I just want a few minutes to talk. When the others finally leave, Jesse asks me how I am getting along. He is the only one, in this whole time around Mama and Daddy’s death, who asks how I am and is not afraid to listen.
Jesse talks to me about Daddy, not so much about him dying, but stories about him living. Stories that make me laugh, that give me good things to remember. I ask Jesse about himself. He is taking care of white folks’ yards in Jacksonville. He tells me that he makes enough to live on and that his babies are growing up fine. He offers me his hand and I shake it. This is the last time I see Jesse.
I’m twenty-seven, home visiting, my belly just beginning to swell with my first baby. The Pepsi-Cola thermometer hanging outside Granny’s back screen door has been reading over one hundred degrees since eleven this morning. My stomach is sitting in my throat. Granny turns away from the stove where she’s frying corn bread and okra in hot grease. “So what are you going to call the baby?” she asks.
I hesitate before answering. Granny and I don’t have a lot left out of the past to love but each other. After years spent with only a few letters and phone calls between us, we have arrived at an unspoken truce. We step gingerly, leaving well enough alone. We have wasted years of words in hateful arguments going nowhere. We know well enough where the other stands and we know for sure the places we will forever stand alone.
“I’ll name it Rita if it’s a girl, and Jesse if it’s a boy,” I answer.
“Jesse,” she says. “I despise that name, reminds me of Nanny’s old man. He’s the only Jesse I’ve ever known . . .” She pauses. “Except for that big nigger worked for your Daddy at the mill.” Our eyes meet for a second and I know that she knows. Everything about her stiffens. She turns away. “I’d better make some gravy to go with that roast,” she says. I know we will never talk about it again. I name my son Jesse.
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