The Foot Bridge
by William Bearden
The day was hot, even for late June. The sky, not blue, but blank and monochrome, took on proportion and shape only as it met the earth at the far horizon. The haze of the flat Delta waved and seemed nearly to pulsate in the otherwise mid-afternoon stillness. The field hands were far away from the pickup truck, but not nearly in the middle of the cotton field whose rows were over a mile long, their hoes rising and falling in no particular rhythm, but slow and without passion. The green ’54 Ford was parked in the dank shade of a tall pecan tree along the bank of the slow moving creek. Two boys sat motionless in the dusty cab. They hadn’t spoken in long minutes. The only sound was the occasional cry from the far distance of “waddo!” A brown horsefly bothered the boy sitting in the driver’s seat. He swatted, unsuccessfully, and banged his hand on the side vent handle. “I’m gon kill that goddamn horsefly. Why don’t we bring a flyswatter out here with us?” From two hundred yards away in the field, the cry arose, this time beginning as a single call, then rising like a church chorus, scattered and ill-defined, then finally into a collective call for “waddo.”
“You goin’?” the first boy asked, still rubbing his hand.
“It’s too hot.” Replied the other, smaller boy slumped in the passenger seat. “I just took ‘em some not an hour ago. That’s just Simmy gettin’ everybody worked up. Anyway, it’s your turn.”
The driver smiled, “No it ain’t, you said you’d tote all afternoon if I gave you that cigarette. You better get out there before they tell Mr. Rivers. Or Bojo might spit snuff in your face again.” He smiled, knowing that would get a rise out of the other boy.
“That little sonofabitch tripped me, he didn’t beat me.”
“That’s what you say, but I saw you were scared when he came after you. You looked scared.”
“It was just ‘cause he stunk so much, I didn’t want him even touching me. Damn snuff all over his chin and smellin’ like a hog.”
“Them girls were sayin’ Johnny Brown can beat you up.”
“I’d like to see him try … he’s a damn sissy.”
The chorus in the distance waned, and the two boys sat in silence for what seemed like minutes although it was a much shorter time.
“Who’s that?” the boy in the passenger seat said.
“Looks like Rena,” said the driver.
“What’s she doin’?”
“I don’t know, maybe she’s comin’ to get the other file for Mr. Arthur. Is it behind the seat?”
“He’s got that brand new file, and you know he ain’t sharpenin’ no damn hoe hot as it is. What the hell does she want?”
“You better get your ass out there and fill that bucket up…or she’ll beat your ass. She ain’t no Johnny Brown.”
The other boy said nothing, but kept his eye on the steadily approaching girl. She was walking, no, dragging her bare feet through the dust. Down below the scorching surface inch of hot dust was the cool presence of the earth, the meager gift of relief in the otherwise brutal landscape.
The boy stood by the truck bed, thinking first to get the five gallon galvanized water bucket and dipper out of the back and begin filling it from the 55 gallon drum filled with water and the once-huge, 50 pound block of ice they had bought from the ice house at 6 A.M. that morning. The burlap bag, a kroker sack in Delta parlance, sagged under its own weight, and threatened to fall into the now lukewarm water.
The boy shifted to lean against the bed of the pickup truck, then thought better of it. She was fifty yards away, and he needed to establish himself, his power, his position, before she got there. When she saw that he was looking at her, she renewed her effort in the six inch deep dust, dragging her feet more quickly now, creating a layer of hanging dust like ground fog on a November morning. He could sense that the work in the field had stopped, and every one of the more than fifty field hands were watching Rena’s progress as she neared the pickup truck. The boy reached into the bed of the pickup and lifted out the bucket and dipper. Afraid to look in her direction, he busied himself with the bucket until he felt her presence behind him. He turned, shoving his hands in the pockets of his jeans and glaring at the young black girl in front of him. Only the dry scree of cicadas broke the uncomfortable silence. Rena was shaking, almost imperceptibly, but shaking nonetheless. They looked at one another for a long moment. Then, as if with the violent release of a scream, she slapped him with her sweaty open hand across the side of his head, catching his ear with a blow that exploded like a cherry bomb inside his head. He instinctively reached for his ear, but the momentum of the blow coupled with his fisted hands in the jeans, dropped him to the ground, the dust turning to a light film of mud as it mixed with his sweat. She sprung as if to hit him again, and he brought his knees to his chest anticipating the blow that did not come. Then it was quiet again.
The other boy, now aware of the fight, jumped out of the truck, but did not approach the girl. “Rena, what in the hell are you doin’? “
She did not acknowledge his presence, but instead came a step closer to the boy on the ground, and through tears of intense anger said, “You been hearing us holler for water for near ‘bout an hour now, and you ain’t did nothin’ but lay up in that truck. Now, goddamnit, when folks hollers for water, you better bring some goddamn water. My mama and them out there ‘bout to fall out!” At that, she wheeled and began the long walk back to the still motionless group in the field. Moments later the boy had stood, brushed what dust he could from his shirt and pants, and began filling the bucket with water.
He watched from the corner of the drugstore and waited till he saw Josie walk up the steps into the beauty shop. He knew she had waited till the last minute to show up for work because she knew if he got there first his mama would have him begin sweeping up the day’s volume of hair on the floor. “Sorry-ass Josie with three kids and not yet twenty years old,” he thought, as he walked across the street. But that wasn’t the half of it. She regularly told on him for the slightest indiscretions. She’d amble into the beauty shop, her hair a shock of steel wool, titties swinging beneath a dirty white t-shirt, runover house-shoes and a tight skirt, and whisper to his mama to come back in the storeroom where she’d tell of seeing the boy smoking a cigarette on the creek bank, or walking into the poolhall, or hanging around Calvin’s jukejoint out on the creek road. She’d begin, “Miss Bernice, I know you havin’ trouble raisin’ them boys by yo’self, especially that Billy, and I know you don’t want them getting into no trouble and carryin’ on in the street around town, but I saw …” and on she’d go into the details of his latest transgression, his mother’s lips turning to a taut line as she heard the story, knowing he’d deny everything when confronted later at home. But today Josie had no news to tell, and shuffled back to the storeroom, but not before slipping a Salem out of an open pack at the deserted front counter.
Bernice acknowledged Josie’s presence by glancing at the clock, then went back to work. Three more shampoo and sets before she could go home. She stepped to the small table behind her station, took a bite of the sputnik, an apricot-filled flying saucer-shaped pastry one of her customers had brought earlier in the day, took a sip of the ever-present Coke, and stepped back to her booth where old Mrs. Pettaway sat, head halfway covered with tissue twisted papers held tightly with bobby pins to her nearly bald head. The old woman had fallen asleep in the brief time the stylist had been away, hardening of the arteries was what they called it. Bernice touched Mrs. Pettaway’s shoulder, lightly, and her head rose slowly and looked toward the large mirror in front of her. Just then the boy walked in. “Billy, Mr. Brown called to see if you could run the store for him the rest of the afternoon.”
Mrs. Pettaway looked at Bernice’s reflection in the mirror and said, “Who’s that?”
“I was just telling Billy that Mr. Brown wanted him to come run the store for him this afternoon. He’s got to take Mary to the doctor in Vicksburg.”
Mrs. Pettaway looked more perplexed than before. “Who’s gonna carry me over there?” Bernice glanced at the boy with an amused look. “No ma’am, you just stay right here with me and let me finish fixing your hair. Billy’s gonna go over to see Mr. Brown.”
The old woman studied her reflection for a long moment and said, “Well, they shot ole Kennedy today, and as bad as everybody talks about Mississippi, what do they do … they done made Paul Johnson the President.”
The boy quickly looked at this mother, then back to the old woman and began, “No, Mrs. Pettaway, they made Lyndon Johnson the President, he’s …”
The woman continued, “I know Paul Johnson, and he’s a good man. He stood in the door up at Ole Miss and dared them to put that nigra in school. Said they’d have to kill him.”
Bernice met the boy’s gaze and shook her head, almost imperceptibly, “You go on over to the store, he called about thirty minutes ago. And you’ve still got to dust when you get home. I told you to do it before you went to school.”
The boy, careful not to let the screen door slam behind him, walked out into the street as the first drops of rain began to fall on the sidewalk. Big, fat drops that presaged the kind of rain that lays over the Delta for a day or more in the gloom that is November. He crossed the footbridge over Deer Creek as the rain quickened, and barely made the store’s double screen doors as the deluge began.
“Bottom’s droppin’ out, ain’t it?” Mr. Brown said from his metal lawn chair as the boy scooted in.
“Yes sir, probably gon’ rain the rest of the night. I saw ‘em hauling the cotton trailers under the gin shed, they don’t ever have enough tarpaulins (he pronounced it tarpoleyins). That bale’s still smokin’, maybe the rain will finally put it out.”
Mr. Brown looked toward the flyspecked front window, “I don’t know, I’ve seen ‘em smolder till Christmas time. That whole bale’ll be rurnt by then. They cain’t get the smell out. I bet you Mr. Barrentine’s cussing a blue streak.” He stood, looked around the small store, and said, “Go on and make yourself a bolonie sandwich or get whatever you want, I got to get going, especially in this rain. We’re gon spend the night in Vicksburg. Bailey’s comin’ in tomorrow morning to open up, and I should be back after dinner, so if you can watch things for a while you can close up about 7.” He buttoned his sweater and walked to the side door, “Probably won’t have too many customers this afternoon with all this rain, but I got my shipment this morning so put some of the stock up if you get a minute.” He walked slowly to his car, oblivious to the hammering rain.
Brown’s Grocery was a dark, out of the way little place by the railroad track on the edge of the black section of town known as Bluefront. The haphazard row of houses had gotten its name years before when the owner of the two dozen or so shotgun shacks plus a converted jukejoint called The Gold Coast had found a deal on fifty gallons of dark blue paint, leftover as war surplus from Camp Shelby in south Mississippi. The fact that the houses were now painted a deep yellow, ostensibly from some other good deal, made no difference at all to its inhabitants or the people of the town. It was and would forever be Bluefront.
The store’s only light came from two flyspecked and greasy windows in the front and four bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling. The truth was that Mr. Brown’s only customers were the residents of Bluefront, generally children sent to the store for the simple necessities of Delta life, and their needs ended at the cold drink boxes filled with Red Rock Cola, Grapette, Diet Rite and the myriad flavors of Barqs drinks, the big glass jars filled with two-for-a-penny cookies, or the glass front meat cooler which held an array of pungent souse, liver cheese, boiled ham, rag bologna, salami, giant jars of pickled eggs and pigs feet, and the huge wheels of what was known locally as “rat cheese.”
The rain slacked to a steady, insistent peppering. The boy went to the meat cooler and pulled an end hunk of rag bologna out of the chill of the box, put it on the electric meat slicer, cut a healthy, half inch slice, and laid it on a piece of white butcher paper. He then cut a thick slice of cheese, got a nickel pack of crackers from the shelf, and opened a Barq’s root beer. He ate in silence, slumped in the red metal lawn chair. He looked up as the front door opened to see a girl rush inside, shaking the rain from her hair and wiping her face with the sleeve of a thin coat. She stopped when she saw the boy, her arm still held to her forehead. It was Rena. Although he had seen her almost weekly, they had not spoken since the incident in the cotton field some four months before. She met his gaze, straightened her shoulders and marched to the drink box.
She lifted the heavy chest-like door of the drink box and stood, motionless, looking down into forest of bottles in the chilled water. She leaned to reach into the box, but quickly, as if surprised by the iciness of the water, pulled her hand away and stood gazing into the darkness of the drink box. He looked in the direction of the motionless girl. She was crying, and in that moment her shoulders began to shake, gently at first but with increasing strength until her entire body was moving with a force that scared the boy, and a low moan arose from somewhere deep inside the girl that sounded to him plaintive and other-worldly. This time he stood.
He walked to the drink box quietly, and stood. He finally found the courage to ask, “What’s wrong Rena?”
She did not look at him as she whispered, “They kilt him. They just kilt him.”
“Who killed who?” the boy shot back, puzzled at this pronouncement.
“Didn’t they tell ya’ll? They shot the president today. He’s dead.” She now looked at the boy, her tears standing in stark contrast to the rain still on her face. In his confusion the boy thought, “Tears look different than rain.”
He blurted, “Some of the kids stood up and cheered when they made the announcement over the intercom at school. I know that’s wrong, and I’m sorry about the water in the field last summer. I didn’t mean … ”
She turned to face him and moved closer to him, and in one motion and without stopping, kissed him on the mouth, not lightly, but quick, as if almost to shut him up. He could smell the faint odor of woodsmoke and bacon grease in her hair and on her body, but her mouth tasted of ripe peach or pear, deep, foreign and exotic. And although he had kissed a girl before, this was different. She pressed hard against his mouth, tasting the mix of bologna and root beer. A sense of calm came over her and she felt the tension leave her body. She backed away and looked beyond him. She turned, the boy now with his arms outstretched toward her, and walked to the screen door, paused without looking back, pushed the door open and walked out into the November rain.
It was one of those days when winter seems far past. The air, while not warm, hints of a perfect day, and the ground, while not technically wet, still holds the moisture of the winter rains, and is almost cold. A line of turtles slipped quietly, as if by some prearranged signal or implied order, off the log as the four boys came onto the footbridge over the creek. The boys were carrying Red Ryder and Daisy BB guns with the exception of Buddy, who carried a pump action pellet rifle. One carried a brown paper grocery sack filled with Coke bottles and Mason jars.
“Watch before you throw anything down.” said Buddy. “Louis Brown told my Daddy that he knew it was us shootin’ off the bridge.”
The tallest boy dropped the sack on the creosote and tar covered crossbeams of the bridge, picked out a quart jar and flung it far upstream. “I saw the patrol car at Cecil’s. Louis is probably sittin’ in the barbershop or the poolhall. He ain’t studyin’ us. Let’s shoot.”
And with that, the boys trained their BB guns on the bobbing jar heading toward the bridge. They shot with amazing speed and some degree of accuracy, and within seconds there was a faint, hollow pop, and the jar disappeared under the churning brown water of Deer Creek.
“I hit that sonovabitch!”
“No you didn’t, it was me.”
“The hell you say, I hit it square on the side. You couldn’t hit a gallon jug with that piece of shit.”
“Well, throw another one and just you and me’ll shoot.”
They quickly exhausted the supply of bottles, all the while arguing as to who shot what and who was the best shot and who’s BB gun was the truest.
“I bet I can hit that light pole over there.” Buddy bragged and took aim at the pole some thirty yards away.
“Do it then, smartass. Hell, that ain’t nothin’, anybody can hit that.”
“See that far streetlight there? I bet I can hit the lightbulb.” Buddy pumped the pellet rifle to its maximum and knelt on the bridge, using the handrail to steady the barrel. He took his time, biting the tip of his tongue as if in deep concentration, and finally shot. For a moment they thought he had missed, and made ready to jeer his failure, when the faint but unquestionable sound of the pellet striking the glass globe came to them, and then, seconds later, the undeniable sound of glass shards falling on the street.
“Well kiss my ass and call me shorty,” Billy muttered under his breath. “That was a damn good shot.”
“What did I tell you boys? Ya’ll can call me dead eye Dick from now on.”
“I know what we can call you. Mister got-his-ass-in-trouble-again.” said the tall boy. “One way ticket to reform school. Next stop Parchman.” They laughed, but in that nervous and unsettling way when everyone realizes the uncomfortable but irrefutable truth has been spoken.
“Not if they can’t catch me. I run better than I shoot.” He paused, looking to the far end of the bridge, “Here comes L.C. and Rena. He ain’t paid me back that quarter I lent him two damn weeks ago.”
“Yeah, he didn’t see yo ass or he’d a gone the other way.” the tall boy said.
“Don’t mess with him, you know he ain’t got a penny, if he did he’d have a mouth full of bubble gum.” Billy said, looking toward the boy and girl who had stopped when they saw the boys standing on the bridge.
“You got my money, L.C.?” Buddy hollered in their direction. L.C., small for his age, but lean and wiry, grinned at Buddy, looked at his older sister, and turned to run. Buddy dropped the pellet rifle and took off toward the now running boy, closing quickly, and as if in a single motion, pounced on his back like an attacking bear, pinning the other’s arms behind his back before crashing to the ground.
“Get offa me! I ain’t did nothin’ to you.”
“Yeah, ‘cept not pay me back my money. How ‘bout I take it outa yo ass?”
“Let him go, Buddy!” Rena screamed as she ran to her now sobbing brother.
Buddy spun the boy around, away from Rena, now twisting and putting more pressure on the boy’s neck, and looked at her coldly, quietly. “You better shut your damn mouth. This is between me and L.C.”
Rena stopped for a moment, staring at Buddy, stunned in that instant that he wasn’t even mad, he was, in fact, mocking, almost giddy in his victory. His quarry was overpowered, beaten, dismissed. Rena looked toward the other boys, now shuffling uncomfortably with hands in pockets, staring at the ground, looking everywhere except at the debacle, and rested her gaze on Billy. He was looking toward her, yet not into her face. That she was in his periphery was the most he could gamble, and feeling the heat of her stare, quickly averted his eyes, his cheeks red from the ferment of the fight, or the sudden chill of the now fading afternoon, or the sting of the knowledge that he wouldn’t go against Buddy. That he could not go against Buddy. The entire clash had happened in no more than one minute, but the exercise left them spent, even the boys who had nothing to do with the fight.
Rena looked away, then calmly put her hand into the pocket of her dress and drew out a pitiful handful of coins, pennies and nickels and the odd dime. She held them out as an offering, eyes downcast and tear-filled, not in sadness, but with the blunt, distant anger that cannot be salved. “Just let him go.” she whispered. “Just let him alone.”
Buddy suddenly, and unexpectedly, eased his grip on the boy’s neck and let him fall to the ground. He turned to reach for the coins. Wanting, no, seeing the coins slam into his face with the sting of an open handed slap, to plunge wildly and embed deep into those mocking, hate-filled eyes, rendering them sightless for all time, she hesitated. Her hand clinched as if to make a fist, then relaxed and began to open as her head slowly raised and her still wet eyes met those she had so recently wanted to hurt. As Buddy reached for the coins, they slipped, as if in slow motion, one by one, onto the cold ground. Buddy dropped to his knees and scrambled for his meager repayment, the score settled. “Come on L.C.” Rena helped her brother to his feet, brushing the brown grass and leaf bits from his face and hair, a dark stain of water spreading from the knees of his jeans, and his shirt in disarray. Rena placed her hand lightly on his neck as they turned to walk across the footbridge and the short walk home.
William Bearden is a Memphis-based film and event producer who has worked with such clients as The Blues Foundation, The Memphis Wonders Series and Entertainment Tonight. He has also produced shows, including The W.C. Handy Blues Awards show and the Mississippi Salute to the Grammys. Since 1999, he has written and produced several documentaries for WKNO Television and, in 2009, he produced his first feature film, “One Came Home.” Bearden has William Bearden has written three books: Overton Park, Cotton: From Southern Fields to the Memphis Market, and Memphis Blues: Birthplace of a Music Tradition. In 2011, he was honored as the 2011 recipient of the Distinguished Achievement Award in the Creative and Performing Arts presented by the University of Memphis College of Communication and Fine Arts.