by George Dickerson
It was long before the church burnings you read about these days. It was
the time of the Kennedys and the Civil Rights Movement, and people came
and went, just looking to stir things up. Some had good intentions. Others
didn't care what kind of mess they left behind. And some, like the fellow
I'm going to tell you about, were a puzzlement.
He came south to our small town in Mississippi, carrying an old portable typewriter in one hand and a beat-up imitation leather suitcase in the other. His suit was finely cut out of dark, grey flannel, threadbare now by his self-imposed austerity. Despite its press, the suit hung baggy in the seat and drooped somewhat around his large shoulders as if, although he was still a big man, he had once been quite a bit heavier. His sandy hair was receding on top, accentuating a big brow, a pronounced Roman nose, and a mouth that articulated with almost no motion to the jaw. His hands were too small for his body: fine-boned, yet strong those hands; and they either hung listlessly at his side or exploded in sharp, abrupt gestures, appearing to release part of a long-restrained violence.
But what made the townsfolk stop and worry were his eyes. Those eyes were the color of chipped slate, with little movement to them, vacant as if he had stared many years at the sea or served time in prison. Some folks later said he had been a merchant seaman, then a convict during the war--because of pacifism. Others recalled they had read in the newspapers that he was the black-sheep son of a wealthy Boston family.
No one seemed to know anything about the long, bluish-white scar that scythed down his left cheek, indenting around the jaw. The scar was ugly enough to have been slashed by a razor in a street brawl. That scar prompted many rumors and much speculation.
His name was Cliff Dodds and, shortly after his arrival in Centralia, everyone--colored and white--suspected that he had come to fight for "the cause."
It was the first of August, early in the evening, when he stepped off the bus that stops outside the Centralia Diner. June bugs slapped at the lights of the frame and cinderblock buildings along Main Street. Occasionally, fireflies winked on and off in the dark back ways, and a solitary bat lunged franticly at the street lamps. The night was hot enough to keep most people out on their porches, except for the few who hung out in the Gulf Bar, trying to cool off that way, and a couple of late customers in the diner.
Cliff Dodds rested his luggage on the floor of the diner, sat down on a stool and asked, "Pardon me, can you tell me where I might find accommodations for the night?" He spoke in a deliberate, unmistakably cultured voice, with a touch of nasal Yankee intonation. He received no response. August is not the month for Northerners to pass through Centralia, unless they're running away from someplace else. Although some think no month would be the right time to arrive here.
The two local customers--heavy men they were, one wearing a short-sleeved khaki shirt and khaki trousers left over from the army, the other in blue slacks and a flamingo-patterned sports shirt--continued talking to the buxom blonde waitress. Eula, her voluminous breasts shaking, rocked back and forth in laughter like a large balloon caught in wind currents.
"Pardon me," Cliff said again, in exactly the same even tone. "Can you tell me where I might find a room for the night? I just got off the bus and I need a place to sleep."
They still appeared not to hear him, nor did he seem to mind. After another round of talk in which the waitress's laughter grew noticeably louder, he asked, "Waitress, may I have a Dr. Pepper?" He would have preferred Coke or even iced tea, but chose the Dr. Pepper to let them know he was acquainted with the South.
The waitress went to the cooler, thrust her meaty arms down among the bottles and pulled out a dripping wet Dr. Pepper, uncapped it and set it before him without verbally acknowledging his request or looking into his eyes. As she started to move back to the two local men, Cliff asked again, "Please, is there a rooming house here?" Still he spoke with no change of tone or sense of urgency.
"The man wants to know if there's a rooming house heah," the waitress said to the two locals. She said it in a way that implied total indifference.
The man in the flamingo sports shirt turned and said to Cliff, "That a writing machine you got there?"
"Yes, it is."
"There ain't nothing to write about heah, mistuh." The flamingo-shirted man gave an unfriendly smile.
"I'm just looking for a room for the night."
"In fact, there ain't never gonna be nothing to write about hereabouts. We're peaceful folk and we aim to keep peaceful. You want something to write about, you go on over to Philadelphia where trouble is tighter than ticks on a ham bone. Better yet, you catch yourself another bus back Nawth where it ain't so miserable hot." The speaker still had the forced smile and only a slight threat to his voice.
"Thanks, anyway," Cliff said, sliding the words out with little jaw or lip movement, "but I'm just looking for a room."
"You'll find one out near niggertown...that way," the man in khakis said, jerking his thumb towards the south of town.
The two men turned back to the waitress, shoulders hunched into their cheeks, as if the stranger no longer existed for them.
Cliff drank down the Dr. Pepper, left a dime on the counter and went out into the night that was heavy and dank as if just before a rain that wouldn't come for a good while yet. It made the heart heavy, that air, and the body lackadaisical.
Cliff lugged the typewriter and suitcase half a mile, walking past the hardware store and the drugstore that advertised notions, past a couple of prosperous houses that belonged to the judge and the banker. They were big houses with magnolias on the lawns and, from one of them, came the sounds of a radio playing Grand Ole Opry music, shrill and cantankerous in the gloomy night.
Cliff rested and listened to the hillbilly music for a few moments. As he walked further on, the houses became less pretentious. He passed one that had a "Rooms for Rent" sign, paused, then moved on until he crossed a street where the Black townfolks' pine shanties began throwing out the odors of human sweat and fried chitlins and boiled collard greens. He stared at the Black section, at the tarpaper roofs, then turned back toward the rooming house.
During the next few days, he seemed to have no inclination to converse unnecessarily with anyone. It wasn't in his nature to socialize and, for that matter, it had been many years since he had talked about deeply personal matters with anyone. Several times he was seen just walking up and down Main Street and looking close at buildings, as if he were taking their measurements.
Occasionally he would stop in front of the drugstore and appear to stare at the notions, or in front of the grocery store at the dry goods or perhaps the numerous flies trapped on the sticky brown flypaper hanging in the window.
He ate all his meals in the diner without talking. Some nights he was seen in the Gulf Bar drinking beer alone. Other nights, if you walked past the rooming house, you could hear his typewriter sounding like sporadic gunfire in a private war. There was much speculation about what he might be writing up there, but eventually the intense heat became once more the focus of most conversation.
After two weeks had passed, Cliff Dodds left the rooming house late one night and walked into the Black district to visit with the minister of their Baptist Church.
The minister's name was Serenity Jones, and at forty his short hair had already turned white. He sat fat as a potbellied stove. His smoky eyes stared at the scar on the white man's face. His cotton-capped head nodded whenever Cliff made mention of the need for more equitable civil liberties for the minister's people.
"One man...just one man...can start the whole movement," Cliff was saying, leaning forward on a wooden chair towards the man who looked older but was actually his junior, seated there in the worn, green easy chair that was the preacher's sole symbol of luxury, even though some wayward stuffing peeked out of one of the chair's arms as a reminder that even a pretense of elegance could be betrayed by time and careless wear.
The minister nodded and licked his lips. He always did that before he spoke, as if speech was something to be prepared for in a ritualistic way, in order to give the words more weight.
His wife, a woman with pendulous breasts, sat and knitted next to a gateleg table from which the varnish was beginning to peel. The only sound she made came from the click-click of her knitting needles.
In the corner, his eighteen-year-old daughter, Sarah Jones, stood listening intently. Her face was fine-boned, eyes large and almond-shaped, her nose like Nefertiti's--a tall, willowy girl who responded with grace and poise when Cliff was introduced. Through all the conversation, she neither moved nor spoke, yet though Cliff rarely looked at her, he seemed to be talking more to her than to her father.
"Your people, I'm sure you are aware, deserve equal rights, better living conditions, fair voting privileges," Cliff said. "The law is now on your side. If enough pressure is exerted, you can win out. The important thing is to make a beginning, rouse your people against the indignities they're suffering."
The minister licked his lips again, then spoke in a resonant voice that was accustomed to invoking God or images of hellfire and damnation: "Mistuh Dodds, are you heah to represent the Congress of Racial Equality?"
"No, not CORE, not any organization. I'm here alone, to help your cause." As Cliff Dodds talked, his face grew florid with excitement. His voice found the power to exhort men to action. His hands flew out to establish a principle by seeming to grab hold of it in mid-air. His normally vacant eyes glittered feverishly, filled as they were with the breadth and force of his dreams, his visions for a better society.
"I've come because I believe those who feel strongly about justice and human rights should act, should do something to help those who are imprisoned by the bigoted habits and lethargies of our times. I'm a nonviolent activist...a pacifist, if you will, but a pacifist who is determined to fight for what is right. I've fought for workers to start unions when they were being subjugated by slave wages. I believe in human dignity, Reverend, and as the spiritual leader of your congregation, I'm sure that you are willing to make the first steps towards achieving that dignity for yourself and your family and your people. Reverend, tomorrow night we can call a meeting at the church and make plans for a realistic program for your liberation."
The minister stopped nodding. "Mistuh Dodds," Serenity Jones said politely, almost apologetically, "I agree with your principles, but I cannot help you. I won't want mah people being hurt heah. We've got a good community, with no violence. You get these white folk riled up and there'll be no end of trouble. Won't anything come of it in the long run, except maybe some black folks getting killed and mah church burned. This heah community needs its church too much to get it burned."
"I can't believe that you won't help," Cliff said, leaning so far forward that the minister anticipated him falling off the white deal kitchen chair.
"I'm sorry, Mistuh Dodds, but I must advise mah people against it," the minister concluded, shaking his head slowly from side to side.
"You must help!" Cliff protested.
But Serenity Jones only continued to shake his head in that slow exercise of negation.
With that, the vacancy returned to Cliff's eyes, grey as spent bullets. His hands fell dead by his sides, and he excused himself, thanking the minister for his time and nodding to the wife a resigned goodbye. Sarah Jones, the daughter, walked him to the door.
Outside on the porch of the modest frame house, Sarah said quietly, "It was a pleasure to meet you, Mistuh Dodds. Y'all go see Evans Pharr. He's the undertaker for black folks hereabouts. He's done gone to college up Nawth. Y'all go see and talk with him."
Cliff thanked her. He opened his lips slightly and cleared his throat as if to say something else. Lacing his fingers into a church steeple, he stared over it at her patient, almond eyes. Then he just said "Good night" and slipped back to the rooming house.
That night he wasn't at the diner or the Gulf Bar, nor did his typewriter rattle up questions in the minds of those living around him. Pete Cummings, the milkman, recalls seeing him as late as five a.m., standing by the window, outlined by the light from his room, staring out. As Pete says, "You cain't account for the peculiarities of Yankees and it's best to have no truck with them."
The next evening, Cliff ate early at the diner and, later on, went back to the Black district to look up the undertaker. Evans Pharr lived in as fine a house as any Centralia Black ever had: a two-story structure with big porches, well painted, and wall-to-wall carpeting inside, with modern Danish furnishings that he had ordered by catalog from up North. His house was the only one in all of Centralia that had air-conditioning. Some say it was because he spent too much time with corpses and he didn't much care for the smell of the human body, living or otherwise. One whole room was given over to books and classical recordings he played on a record outfit that was rumored to have cost him a thousand dollars.
Evans Pharr had constructed an oasis in the midst of the squalor around him, giving rise to speculations as to why any colored man educated up North would want to come back to a segregated town like Centralia. Then again, one might have thought that he would go for a light-skinned girl, but Evans Pharr had married the blackest girl he could find--a tiny one because he was a small, slight man himself.
He dressed in English-cut suits with silk ties and dark suede shoes, and he moved with nervous, fluttering, birdlike gestures that hardly matched his calm, unaccented voice.
"Ah, Mister Dodds. Mistuh Dodds," he said. "I've been expecting you." He showed Cliff into the carpeted living room. "I want you to meet my wife, Cynthia. And I believe you already know Miss Sarah Jones."
Cliff was surprised to see Sarah Jones there, but nodded to her in acceptance and greeted the undertaker's wife, who was perhaps less pleased than Sarah to see him.
"Would you care for Scotch whiskey or bourbon?" Evans Pharr asked.
"Bourbon, please," Cliff answered. "And water."
The three sat in silence while Evans Pharr disappeared into the library. He returned with the drinks, and placed a Bach cello suite on the hi-fi.
"I hope you don't mind Bach," he said. "I find him conducive to serious conversation. It is serious conversation you've come here for, isn't it, Mr. Dodds?"
"Yes, Sarah has told me all about your reception with her father, and of course I knew you were in town and wondered how long it would take you to ferret me out."
Cliff smiled slightly at this, seeing that the undertaker loved to talk, and so did not interrupt him.
"You, of course, want me to help you liberate this town. Yes, it would be a marvelous thing to see black communing with white, wouldn't it? Eat in the same filthy diners, rub elbows at the same smelly urinals, be able to look up from the ground when we pass a Caucasian in the street...a utopia for the black man, in other words. But what you may not realize is that prejudice is based on the economy, and the white man does not want to have to compete with the black. And there is a certain inertia here, compounded of dust and heat and indifference, you may say, an inertia like a black cat lulled in the sunshine, loath to be disturbed. What you also may not comprehend is that the Black has a touch of masochism in his bones...he might just like being subjugated, if only as an excuse for his laziness, don't you agree?"
Cliff realized his mind had drifted and was only half-following the undertaker's disquisition. He had been thinking about Sarah...perhaps what her feelings were about being a Black woman in the South...perhaps. There was a pause in the cool house while he tried to adjust his thoughts. The undertaker was leaning back, questioning Cliff with his narrowed eyes, smiling an almost droll, antic smile at him. The two women were silent: Sarah alert, the undertaker's wife withdrawn into her knitting.
"What of the innate dignity of any human being," Cliff said, "that craves to overcome subjugation?"
"Yes, of course, dignity! The pride of spirit, eh? But, Mr. Dodds, isn't dignity dependent on power? Isn't dignity a satisfaction of the lust for power? Not everyone can be in power. You see, I have power. It's one reason I came back South, odd as it may seem. Here, among the subjugated members of my people, I can be the wealthiest, the most cultured, the most dignified. Isolated among coloreds, I am king. If we were integrated, I would be competing with every white man as well as with my fellow 'darkies'--hardly to my advantage. Do I disgust you, or just disturb your image of the enlightened Black man?"
Cliff grew agitated, the strong fingers nervously tapping on his chair arms. His voice became was much louder than was called for.
"You seem to be too intelligent and educated a man to be satisfied with life on those terms," Cliff said. "Surely, there must be one man in this community who will fight for the dignity of the whole instead of just settling for self-aggrandizement. Surely..."
The undertaker was smiling even more broadly now. "I see that I've impressed you with my education and my avarice," he interrupted. "Good! Good! I also want you to know I have no desire to be white. And...and, Mr. Dodds, I, the perverse nigger undertaker, the intelligent but egocentric black man, want to know what you, the honky agitator from the North, expect to gain by integrating this town...or freeing the Black 'eco-slaves,' if you prefer?"
"No, don't tell me about the 'cause,' or about your background as a pacifist and union man. I know enough about your social background, your famous family, the time you spent in prison, your almost fanatical dedication to the so-called 'humane cause.' I've read the newspapers. But you are asking me to risk my life, and I'm asking you what you have really come here for. What, really, have you been seeking all these years? In other words, what's motivating you, Mr. Dodds?"
There was no smile on the undertaker's face this time, only a hard, inquisitive look like an ebony mask questioning the unknown blackness of the nighttime jungle.
The four of them were silent, as the cello suite impressed itself gravely on the question--a formal, musical, classical question about the nature of dignity and the heart.
Cliff's face was flushed and, despite the refrigerated air, sweat beaded his upper lip. The three others were watching him intently. When he did speak, he was composed--the grey eyes vacant and impassive as a frozen river. "These are questions that I see no need to answer now. If you refuse to help me, which seems to be your purpose, then I'll excuse myself and thank you for your bourbon."
Cliff stood up and moved toward the door.
"Don't be so impatient," the undertaker said matter-of-factly. "Nothing was ever accomplished by impatience. I'll help you. Although it's doomed to failure here, yes, I'll risk it. After all, we have something in common: We both deal in death. And perhaps by helping, I'll also satisfy my curiosity about you. Come back tomorrow evening at 8:30. I'll have others here, and we'll discuss the hard facts of action."
© 1997, 2001 George Dickerson
(Formerly on the editorial staffs of The New Yorker, Time, Story, and Rattapallax, George Dickerson is a contributing editor to Big City Lit™.)
[End of Part One. Part Two appears in next month's issue.Ed.]