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