The Drummer

Fiction / Jamey Hatley

:: The Drummer ::

In all but the worst weath­er, the Dea­cons held court where Elder Road dead-end­ed into Horn Lake Road. By the time most of the neigh­bors in Walk­er Homes head­ed to work or school, this flu­id assort­ment of old men and younger laze-abouts were already installed at their post in the shel­ter of a huge oak that is old­er than Walk­er Homes itself. While the rest of Walk­er Homes ate break­fast, the Dea­cons sipped from tall beers or pint bot­tles of bour­bon con­cealed in brown paper sacks. As those who were work or school bound passed, the Dea­cons sipped and shout­ed cor­dial greet­ings. There were com­plaints about the Dea­cons drink­ing out on the street, their lack of ambi­tion bring­ing down the neigh­bor­hood, but we came to depend on them for their reg­u­lar­i­ty and gos­sip. This dai­ly meet­ing, reg­u­lar as tax­es, we called the con­vo­ca­tion. It was this reg­u­lar­i­ty that left the Dea­cons the only wit­ness­es to Clif­fus Bobo’s last hour on earth.

It was so blue-black dark that morn­ing that the stars burst through the canopy of the Dea­cons’ oak like daz­zling unreach­able fruit.  Clif­fus Bobo, new­ly retired from the Mem­phis san­i­ta­tion depart­ment, made his way toward them from the Gap, his white hair almost iri­des­cent in the moon­light. The Dea­cons didn’t reg­is­ter this as strange. The space between 113 and 115 Elder Cove had always been a shortcut—first to the woods that still lay to the back of Walk­er Homes, and lat­er to Turn­er King’s work­shop. Since Turn­er King’s infant son died in 1968 (the same year that oth­er King was killed in Mem­phis) he was a vir­tu­al insom­ni­ac. From late at night to ear­ly morn­ing he could be found in his shed, wood­work­ing or weep­ing to WDIA on the radio. The space right between night and morn­ing was when the res­i­dents of Walk­er Homes stopped to ask for a few dol­lars until the next pay­day or to bor­row a tool.

Hey, Chief!” they called out to Clif­fus Bobo, who was dressed in his uni­form from the san­i­ta­tion depart­ment. The Dea­cons had only shak­en off sleep enough to tum­ble to their places under their oak, so none of them recalled that Bobo had final­ly retired just a few weeks before.

Doc­tor! Doc­tor! Where your car? You head­ed to work?”

You not broke down, are you?”

Bobo! Wake up! Mane. You okay?”

Bobo steadi­ly made his way toward them with­out ever show­ing any sign that he saw or heard them. When he reached where Elder Road dead-end­ed into Horn Lake, right in front of the Dea­cons’ oak, he stepped off the curb with­out so much as a glance in either direc­tion. The Dea­cons thought for a moment that he was com­ing to join them, but instead he made a crisp turn to their right and con­tin­ued on his way.

The hell?”

You think he sleep?”

Walk­ing?”

Peo­ple do all kind of shit in they sleep.”

Maybe we ought to catch him.”

Catch him. Catch him? Negro, you got a net?”

Watch him, then.”

The Dea­cons fol­lowed a few paces behind him. Bobo kept a live­ly pace until he final­ly came to a stop at the cor­ner of Mitchell and Third Street. At first they thought he was wait­ing to cross the street, but the light changed sev­er­al times.

Still, Bobo wait­ed.

The Dea­cons wait­ed, too.

Clif­fus Bobo kept look­ing straight ahead of him. The lone­ly whis­tle of a train sound­ed in the dis­tance. Out from under the leafy canopy of their oak, the Dea­cons could ful­ly appre­ci­ate the map of pierc­ing lights above them and the moon heavy and full, watch­ing, wait­ing with them. A breeze twirled itself around them, bring­ing the heavy scent of white flow­ers, jas­mine or maybe gar­de­nia. One of the Dea­cons closed his eyes and with a deep breath filled him­self with the mem­o­ry of a woman whose neck smelled exact­ly like this friend­ly breeze. For an hour or so, not a sin­gle car passed and it seemed to the Dea­cons that anoth­er car might nev­er trav­el down High­way 61 again.

It was all very pleas­ant.

The Dea­cons broke out their bot­tles and passed them around. To shake off the melan­choly of the smell of the woman’s neck (she was long-dead, any­how), the Dea­cons got down to their usu­al busi­ness.

Them locusts tear­ing up y’all’s yard?”

Locusts? This ain’t Egypt.”

Who says it ain’t? Mem­phis was in Egypt. The O-rig­i­nal.”

That right?”

Yes, it is right. In the B-I-B-L-E. Some of us can and do read, thank you very much.”

Cicadas.”

What­ev­er you call ‘em, them thangs crawl­ing up from under­ground and climb­ing up the trees. That tree right by the Gap is full of them. And I tell you this, that lit­tle King girl was out there just star­ing at them.”     

That lit­tle girl is a haint, I tell you. I know you ain’t sup­posed to say it, but she just give me a chill all the way down in my bones when I see her. Look. She always watch­ing you out that win­dow with them eyes. Ain’t nat­ur­al.”

Lots of folk stare. Star­ing is just look­ing. What’s wrong with look­ing?”

You think just cause she a kid she inno­cent, that she free? I saw her yestid­dy just star­ing in that tree. With a note­book. And she keep some kin­da big book. Books too big for her. Some­thing just ain’t right with that. Not right at all.”

Well, she is a lit­tle spooky.”

That ain’t her fault. She gets it hon­est. You can’t blame her for her peo­ple. You don’t get to choose your peo­ple.”

I don’t blame her for her peo­ple. But that don’t mean that I don’t watch out. I’m not like Eve and just going to let a snake get me in my own gar­den if I can help it.”

Clif­fus Bobo just peace­ful­ly wait­ed. He smiled at the Dea­cons and they took this as a sign that he was com­ing around.

Well look at that.”

I’ll be damned.”

Whoa, stop baby.”

 A thin wall of lazy fog closed across Third Street like a cur­tain. The Dea­cons split up to inspect the fog. It was only about the width of a cin­derblock, but almost opaque. They laughed and stuck their hands through the fog, grab­bing for each oth­er and mak­ing rude hand ges­tures. One poked his head through to the oth­er side like he was peek­ing in a win­dow. Anoth­er danced across the street, let­ting the fog con­sume his cen­ter until he was just wig­gling arms and legs on either side of the fog.

While the fog trans­formed the Dea­cons back into chil­dren, Clif­fus Bobo took three ele­gant hops into the cen­ter of the south­bound lane of High­way 61 and con­tin­ued his wait­ing. The Dea­cons aban­doned their indi­vid­ual posts for the side of the fog with Bobo. Once they were all assem­bled on his side of the fog, Bobo stretched his arms wide and fold­ed him­self into a deep bow. An exhaust­ed soul singer’s third encore.

The noise was so great the Dea­cons expect­ed some­thing huge was coming—a train deposit­ed in the mid­dle of the road or the watch­ing, wait­ing moon crash­ing down from the sky. The careen­ing wail of brakes seemed to explode the fog, reveal­ing a Chevy Bel Air sta­tion wag­on. The plane hood orna­ment of the Bel Air was less than an arm’s length from Clif­fus Bobo when the dri­ver swerved into the oppo­site lane, over­cor­rect­ed and final­ly crashed into a light pole.

Only after the car made impact down the road did Clif­fus Bobo start to lift from his bow and fall—gently, ever so gen­tly back­ward like a can­di­date for bap­tism, into the wait­ing arms of the Dea­cons.

Lucky moth­er­fuck­er!”

When the police arrive, the Dea­cons will leave out that they laughed. That they were daz­zled by Bobo’s lithe grace and ele­gant strut. That they had been applaud­ing when he took his bow. That when he lift­ed his arms in tri­umph they had laughed so hard they had to clutch their hearts. That until the stunned white man stag­gered over to them and shook his head no no no no, did they real­ize that some­thing was wrong. This the Dea­cons will leave out when they try to explain it. 

The white man broke the brim of his fedo­ra in his hands again and again. A live­ly trick­le of blood trav­eled from a gash on his head down his face. He could not stop shak­ing. The Dea­cons assured him that his car didn’t hit Bobo, but even he did not seem to trust them.  He took them in with his icy eyes and stum­bled across the street to the pay­phone. The Dea­cons start­ed to hate him right at that moment because not a sin­gle one of them had thought to call the ambu­lance. Only then did one of them leave to go get Bobo’s wife. The Dea­cons formed a tight clus­ter and took turns hold­ing Clif­fus Bobo up. Across the street, the white man made tele­phone calls and paced.

The police couldn’t make much of the white man or the Dea­cons. There was no trace of any fog by the time they arrived. The old man’s body was cov­ered with scars, but those were scabbed over, already ancient. The dri­ver was a stranger, but white, and the police were famil­iar enough with the Dea­cons to know that they were almost always in some stage of intox­i­ca­tion. Each of them had been locked up for hold­ing in the col­ored week­end jail on Horn Lake. As each one told the sto­ry the oth­ers added a flur­ry of head nod­ding and “yes, shole did”s. The Dea­cons were used to being mis­trust­ed, so they often added so much to any tale that their lies and truths were indis­tin­guish­able. “What hap­pened? What hap­pened?” their neigh­bors asked. The Dea­cons were sick from their lack of answers.

The Dea­cons had dis­cov­ered that the dri­ver was employed as a drum­mer, one of those trav­el­ing sales­men who roamed from town to town. The Drum­mer spe­cial­ized in ladies’ cloth­ing and acces­sories and was head­ed to Mis­sis­sip­pi. He had a rack full of the lat­est sum­mer fash­ions hung on a rod across the back­seat of the now ruined Bel Air. He was a tall, rangy white man with pomad­ed hair and such bumpy, ter­ri­ble skin that the Dea­cons will lat­er mar­vel that the man could even shave with­out slic­ing his face up. The Drum­mer suf­fered a bust­ed tire, a bent rim, and night­mares for the rest of his life over a man who he hadn’t even hit, much less killed.

The Drum­mer walked back to his vehi­cle. The light pole was cracked and now leaned pre­car­i­ous­ly over the Bel Air. After sev­er­al tries, the Drum­mer wrenched the door open. It made a sound like a wound­ed ani­mal. He dis­ap­peared into the car save his legs stick­ing out of the door. As the Dea­cons watched, they willed the pole to snap, to seal both the Drum­mer and their laugh­ter inside of his car for­ev­er. He final­ly emerged with some­thing that looked like black wings cloaked over his shoul­ders. The glass fix­ture from the light pole crashed to the ground and missed him by inch­es. Even the cops star­tled. One of the ambu­lance men sti­fled a curse, stamped out his cig­a­rette in the street and lit anoth­er one. The Drum­mer didn’t even glance back.

The Drum­mer lum­bered back up the street toward the grow­ing crowd. He seemed to be favor­ing his left foot now, and the gash on his fore­head was bleed­ing through the ban­dage. Still, the Drum­mer con­tin­ued on. The neigh­bors gasped when they real­ized he was head­ed toward the new wid­ow. Lat­er, they will be thank­ful that Gladys Bobo will nev­er know that she was stand­ing in the same exact spot that her hus­band did before his final strut. The Dea­cons watched the Drum­mer shuf­fle up the street and were thank­ful that Turn­er King and Rab­bit Grace were there with Mrs. Bobo. The Dea­con who retrieved her will rest a tiny bit bet­ter than the oth­ers since he had the pres­ence of mind to stop by Turn­er King’s house first (even if it was to post­pone his own ter­ror). Walk­er Homes kept their eyes fixed on The Drum­mer because you can nev­er tell what a white man could do. When the Drum­mer turned to face Mrs. Bobo, they saw that his black wings were actu­al­ly a can­vas gar­ment bag. The Drum­mer stum­bled a bit and Rab­bit held out his arm in warn­ing. The Drum­mer leaned his ruined face toward Gladys Bobo’s ear. Even those clos­est couldn’t make out what he said. Gladys Bobo blinked but did not seem to answer. They both trem­bled.

The Dea­cons want­ed to pun­ish the Drum­mer for exert­ing so much effort to avoid hit­ting the man that was as good as their fam­i­ly. They want­ed to pun­ish the Drum­mer because he had proof of his efforts—a destroyed car and ban­daged head. They want­ed Gladys Bobo to slap the Drum­mer because they were so busy laugh­ing at Bobo’s grand luck that they didn’t even know he was dead until the Drum­mer shook his head no, no, no.

The Dea­cons want­ed the Drum­mer pun­ished because even with his ter­ri­ble skin he was free to dri­ve all around the coun­try with the rack of col­or­ful dress­es that allowed entry to all man­ner of women’s spaces. Because those women laughed in his pres­ence and asked him advice about their under­things. Because those women held out their love­ly wrists for him to spray with per­fume. Because for the Drum­mer, the soft smell of white flow­ers on a grace­ful neck was not a just a dead mem­o­ry, but his life. Because these women fussed over him and fed him and thought of him fond­ly.

Only fond­ly.

The Dea­cons felt the slap for the Drum­mer twitch in their own hands. Their own faces throbbed, wait­ing. The Drum­mer snatched his mis­shapen hat off his head and draped the bag across his arms like a bride he was about to car­ry across a thresh­old. The Dea­cons wait­ed for Mrs. Bobo to throw the bag into the street or for Rab­bit to punch the man in his teeth. Mrs. Bobo blinked past the Drum­mer into the inter­sec­tion and slow­ly took in the shape draped in white on the stretch­er. When she was done, with some effort it seemed, she set­tled her gaze on the Drum­mer. He lift­ed his iced green eyes from the ground to meet hers. With his face in full view now, the Dea­cons were shocked to see that the Drum­mer was wait­ing for the slap as well. The Dea­cons knew the Drummer’s face because it was also theirs, lurk­ing in the mir­rors they tried to avoid. 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

When­ev­er my moth­er saw a car with a cloth­ing rack full of prod­uct stretched across the back­seat, she would say, “That per­son must be a drum­mer or some­thing.” My par­ents are from Mis­sis­sip­pi, so I just assumed it was some sort of coun­try slang. Not until I was an adult read­ing William Faulkn­er did I see “drum­mer” in print, used just as my moth­er did, as an old-fash­ioned term for trav­el­ing sales­man. As I wrote the scene of Clif­fus Bobo’s acci­dent, the car came to me through the fog and I saw it clear­ly. I had been hold­ing on to that image for most of my life, and now my drum­mer had found his place into my work. The first draft of this scene came out in a sin­gle burst, which is very rare for me. It felt more like watch­ing than writ­ing. When I fin­ished the scene, I looked out of the café win­dow and saw a mini-van with a rack of clothes stretched across the back­seat wait­ing for the light to change.

 

Jamey Hat­ley is a native of Mem­phis, TN. Her writ­ing has appeared in the Oxford Amer­i­can, Torch, and Long Hid­den: Spec­u­la­tive Fic­tion From the Mar­gins of His­to­ry. She believes in the heal­ing pow­er of sto­ries and sweet tea.