A meandering road cut through the rural country side of Mississippi.
Ancient, nameless, not much more than asphalt laid over dirt. The road was an intruder the soil fought, persistently pushing back against the change it represented.
The journey home meandered through an unchanging landscape created by decades-old traditions. JC stared out the passenger window as the Chevy Sport traveled swiftly along the old single lane road. As the truck moved along at a steady pace, he watched pines, oaks, dogwoods, underbrush, thickets, flowers, fences, green fields and the occasional house pass by.
The sun’s fall into twilight was heralded by a blood red sky. The light’s retreat allowed shadows to advance and color had no choice but to fade to black. When JC arrived home that evening, darkness would be there to greet him.
“Crying ain’t what you want to be doing when we get home,” Jude said to JC with a laugh. JC didn’t look at Jude. He just wiped his eyes with the bloody towel lying in his lap and pressed his forehead against the widow.
Managing Popular Spring’s municipal pool had been the ideal summer job for Jude. He was a well-liked seventeen-year-old, captain of the football team, and the apple of his parents’ eyes. Running the pool placed Jude at the center of small town teenaged activities, allowing him to exhibit his inner alpha. It also got him out of cutting and hauling pulp wood all summer.
It wasn’t that Jude hated his little brother; he just considered him a burden that would somehow be his undoing one day. JC was seven years younger, and often he would not do as expected. The only thing they seemed to have in common was blood, and at times Jude doubted even this. He made a habit of telling JC the milkman must be his dad, because he was nothing like their father. Jude regarded his brother as the singular oddity of their entire family.
Their mother had forced Jude to take JC with him to the pool almost every day. He protested until she told him if he didn’t, he couldn’t have the job. Jude made a point to occasionally tell JC it was because Mom needed a break from him that he was taking him to the pool. Now the summer was over, the pool closed, and Jude was thankful that his babysitting duties were over.
Shaking his head and laughing Jude turned to JC, “How did you get your ass kicked by a little girl? Jesus fucking Christ! What a Goddamn pussy.”
JC just stared out the window, focusing his thoughts on the exiting sun and escaping colors.
“How do you account for this lack of self-respect?” Jude asked.
JC didn’t reply or look at Jude.
“You are accountable for your actions to your family and friends.” Jude explained in a matter-of-fact tone.
JC remained silent.
“Do you have friends, or is it just your family that is embarrassed to claim you? You’re expecting us to run interference for you? You think me and your cousins are gonna cover for you? Protect you? Is that it? Do you understand what I am getting at?” Jude’s frustration was beginning to show.
JC closed his eyes to ignore his brother.
“HEY PUSSY! I’m talkin’ at you!” Jude said with burst of anger and disgust.
JC jerked his eyes open and saw the blood on his face in the reflection of the widow. Jude had not allowed JC to wash his face because he wanted Daddy and Mama to see what JC allowed to happen. Ignoring Jude’s taunts once again he focused on the light being soaked up by the darkness.
“How did that little girl beat your ass? Why the hell didn’t you knock her out? You didn’t throw one punch.” Jude asked again, back to his even-toned, condescending taunt.
“Her name is Magi.” JC said softly to the darkening red sky.
“Her name is Magi? How does knowing her name make it better?” Jude asked with condescending amusement.
Knowing Jude wasn’t really asking, JC ignored his brother’s questions.
“I can’t believe I share the same blood as you.” Jude exclaimed with a grin on his face and a shake of his head.
JC and Jude lived on a 200-acre homestead in rural Mississippi called “The Place.” From “The Place” to the Popular Spring school was a 40-minute bus ride one-way. JC was one of about five white kids who rode the school bus, the rest were black. JC occasionally shared a seat with a black boy named Stacy. Mostly this occurred because older kids—white or black—preferred not to sit with the younger ones. The school bus was a self-contained environment that didn’t hold to the normal rules of social interaction. Although you could talk to whomever you sat by, that did not mean you invited them to your house to play, pray, or eat.
“You ever fight with your family?” Stacy asked one day, disrupting JC’s intense day dream.
“You talkin’ about my brother and sisters?” JC replied, annoyed by the interruption.
“Yeah, you know. Real fightin’.” Stacy said with a tone of genuine curiosity.
JC considered Stacy’s question before answering. What should he share with this stranger, a black stranger? The easiest solution was just to ignore him, but easiest wasn’t JC’s way. He chose a measured response.
“Not with my sisters. They’re both gone off to college. Jude pushes me into fights with him sometimes. I don’t know why I do it. He is bigger and stronger. I never win.”
“College. That’s white people shit.” Stacy responded.
JC frowned and asked, “Black people don’t go to college?”
Stacy laughed, “None I know.”
JC and Stacy rode quietly for a few minutes before Stacy disrupted JC’s day-dreaming again.
“Jude is tough ain’t he? Football star and all? Bet lots of girls like him. It must be nice to have a brother like that.”
JC looked out the window and said, “Yeah, he is alright. What about you? You fight with Magi?” Magi was Stacy’s younger sister.
“Oh yeah. Magi got a good first punch but she all girl after that. I says to her, hit me in the nose. I say it to her over and over until she swings at me. She never hits me though, she too slow. I done it to her so often, she gets mad and swings right after I say it. Magi told me, she don’t even think about it no more, she just swings. It funny when she does swing, ain’t never nothing serious.”
JC laughed and looked at Stacy saying, “Girls can’t fight worth a darn.”
“You know how to fight?”
JC stared out the window for a few minutes, ignoring the question.
JC suddenly turned to Stacy and asked, “Did you like Star Wars?”
Stacy looked at JC blankly for a moment then asked, “What’choo talkin’ bout?”
JC frowned and replied, “You know? The movie? Star Wars.”
Stacy asks, “When do it come on TV?”
JC laughingly said, “No man, at the theater.”
Stacy, embarrassed, said, “I ain’t ever been to no theater. Was it a good show?”
JC considered what Stacy said to him for a moment while he looked out the bus window. He turned back to Stacy and said, “Yeah it’s the best story ever told. I can tell you all about it if you want. I have seen it twice.”
Stacy smiles and says, “Go on then. Tell me.”
JC excitedly put his school books on the seat next to the window and the boys turned toward one another. “Okay, it goes like this. A long time ago….”
The summer at the pool had been good. There were few problems between Jude and JC most of the time. JC just played in the pool with the other kids and Jude pretended he didn’t have a brother. Anthony, Kenneth and Chris were a group of boys JC knew from his class at school; they came to the pool most days. They referred to themselves as “The Crew.” The Crew considered JC an oddball but thought Jude was super cool. Anthony spent time and energy considering JC for a new addition to the Crew just because JC was Jude’s little brother.
Anthony was the ringleader, Kenneth was the brute, and Chris was the fat kid. During the summer at the pool the boys had included JC in their band of friends and JC was thankful for it. Of course, JC was aware that his older brother being captain of the football team and managing the pool had a lot to do with the Crew including him in their circle. But for the first time JC wasn’t dreading the start of school, as it appeared he would be running with the popular, cool kids.
The Crew all lived in the small town of Popular Springs. They rode their bikes to the pool. They visited each other’s houses daily. They knew each other’s parents and all the local shop owners. JC lived out in the woods a good 20 miles from town. He had never had a friend visit “The Place” that wasn’t a relative. It just wasn’t done.
JC, Anthony, Kenneth, and Chris were sitting on the side of the pool with their legs in the water, Anthony telling the Crew and JC a story, “…we got our blue jean pants, blue jean boots, our blue jeans coats, and blue jeans gloves. That’s how my cousin Max and I are dressed when we ride our dirt bikes. Boy we are cooler than cool.”
Kenneth kicked the water and said, “Man that is so cool.”
Chris agreed, “Oh man that is cool.”
JC wasn’t really listening to Anthony as it was the hundredth time he had heard about the motorcycle riding and uniformed blue jean getup.
Chris said to the boys, “Y’all gonna sign up for little league football this year?”
“Of course you fat tub of lard,” Anthony spat.
Kenneth laughed at the insult and chimed in, “What kind of dumbass question is that, Tubby?”
Chris glared at the two boys but before he said anything Anthony aggressively asked, “What? You got something to say, fat ass? Remember what we did at McGrub’s store last month? You want some of that big boy? You wanna spend the next two months in the hospital too? You think me and Kenneth won’t?”
Chris relaxed and laughed saying, “Oh man we beat the shit out of that nigger.” Then all the boys laughed, except JC. He just looked at the three with a puzzled expression.
JC asked the Crew, “What happened?”
Anthony looked at JC grinning and said with pride, “Me and The Crew saw that nigger named Sam speaking to Delilah down at McGrub’s store. We drug his black ass out of there and beat him so bad he ended up in the hospital.” The boys all laughed with satisfaction.
Chris jumped in saying, “Anthony shoved him into the wall and Kenneth drug him out of the store by his nappy hair. Anthony kicked him in the balls while Kenneth still had his hair. The boy never got off the ground. Wasn’t nothin’ but a kickin’ party after that.”
Kenneth chimed in laughing, “He screamed like a girl. Kept sayin’, ‘Please! Stop! What I do?’”
JC asked in genuine surprise, “You mean “little Sammy”, who is in our grade?”
Chris responded nonchalantly, “Yep, the very one.”
JC said to the group, “What did he say to Delilah?”
The boys looked at each other for a moment all reflecting seriously on the details of the events.
Kenneth finally said, “He said, ‘Hello’,” looking from Anthony to Chris for confirmation.
Anthony frowned in thought and said, “Nay, he said ‘Hi.’”
Chris blurted out, “NO! Joe said, ‘Hey Delilah.’ I was the closet to him when he said it. Delilah bought a coke and was walking out the door and Joe looks at her and says, ‘Hey Delilah’.”
Kenneth chimed in, shaking his head, “Can you believe that shit?” Kenneth’s expression changed to glee, “Delilah sweet on Anthony now.”
Anthony said, disgusted, “Damn nigger talkin’ to a white girl like that. Bastard won’t make that mistake again. We should’ve just went on and killed him.”
Chris nodded, “Yep, we should’ve.”
Kenneth said, “Next time we just might have to.”
JC asked The Crew, “Didn’t you get in trouble?”
The boys all laughed and Anthony said, “With who? Ain’t nobody gives a damn about niggers but niggers. Sheriff Grant is my dad’s best friend. Mr. McGrub just acted like nothin’ happened. We did what was right. My dad says that we got to remember who we are and where they belong.”
Jude’s voice suddenly filled the air, shouting out that the pool would be closing in 15 minutes. It was the last day of the summer pool session and Jude was anxious to be done. A few black boys around Jude’s age protested Jude’s decision to close 20 minutes earlier than the posted time. The black boys continued their complaints but moved into the locker room to change. After about 3 minutes Jude got his bat and went into the men’s locker room to explain to the complainers why it was in their best interest to leave as soon as possible. At the same time a black girl entered the pool area and walked to the far side of the pool.
Anthony said angrily, “Look at that bitch. Didn’t she hear Jude say it was time for the niggers to leave?”
Chris agreed, adding, “I guess she thinks she is special.”
Kenneth stood up and said, “What the hell?”
Anthony jumped up, “Let’s explain it to her .”
JC got up and followed the boys to where the girl was. When she turned around he realized it was Magi, Stacy’s sister. The boys boxed her in and Anthony began the ritual taunting to instill fear in the prey. Anthony said to Magi angrily, “Bitch. Didn’t you hear what Jude said? Time for the niggers to leave.”
Magi suddenly became terrified as she realized the seriousness of her predicament. She quietly said, “I was just getting my towel. I will be on my way now.” The fear in her voice was thick and textured with desperation. She knew what white boys like these could and would do to her. The blood lust was in the air pulsating like dark energy ablaze with hate, it was as real as the Deep South’s sweltering heat. There was no hiding from the truth of violence that was about to be unleashed. She knew there was no escape and no one was going to help her. Magi was inundated with fear. She couldn’t speak or scream. The only movement was streaming tears down her cheeks.
The silence was deafening as Anthony considered his response to Magi’s quiet plea for mercy. On their faces The Crew wore painted smiles of pure rage. Like ancient warriors of deadly calculated discipline they waited for the spark that would unleash their wrath. Time stopped as Anthony delivered the verdict, “Nigger, that towel is going to cost you one hell of a beat down…maybe your life.”
The Crew paused before attacking, to enjoy Magi’s fear. JC took that moment to step up next to Anthony, which surprised him. Neither Kenneth nor Chris would ever dream of interrupting their leader in such away. But before Anthony could put JC in his place JC said to The Crew, “I know this bitch.”
The boys and Magi looked at JC in momentary shock. “Your brother is that worthless piece of shit Stacy. I am going to beat your black ass till the blood is coming out of your ears.”
Anthony and the boys all burst out with sinister laughter. Anthony needed something like this to seal the deal on JC running with The Crew. In a centuries old tradition, it was a baptism of hate that consecrated the joining of men to clans like The Crew, a ritual JC understood all too well.
The Crew stepped back, forming a perimeter as Anthony said, “Teach the nigger a lesson JC…Bitch is all yours.”
JC raised his fist, stepping within striking distance and quietly said to Magi, “Hit me in the nose.” She didn’t think. She didn’t hesitate. JC pushed a button that triggered an automated response. She punched JC in the noise and blood immediately poured forth like the Mississippi river to the sea. Magi began swinging wildly at JC. He steadily retreated to the exit of the pool with Magi swinging at him, landing punch after punch to his face. The Crew were laughing so hard they took no notice when Magi suddenly made her escape to the parking lot.
The Chevy Sport turned on to the dirt road toward “The Place”— it wouldn’t be long now.
Jude said to JC, “Getting your ass beat by a little black girl! Daddy…”
JC turned to Jude angrily saying, “Ain’t nobody at The Place cares about color.”
Jude nodded and replied between chuckles, “True enough little brother, true enough. But Daddy does care that you got your ass beat in a fight. You could’ve taken her down in seconds. Shit JC, you could’ve taken her and those boys down. But you never took one swing. You choked. You’re a coward. Daddy will be caring about that.”
JC desperately said with tears in his eyes, “We could just let this between us. What Daddy don’t…”
Jude cut him off with a grin on his face saying, “Oh no. I ain’t lying to Daddy for your sorry ass. I ain’t steppin’ off into that world of shit. That dog won’t hunt. You are on your own with Dad.”
JC turned back to the window and stared out at the light receding from the earth.
Jude laughed, saying, “You picked the weekend before the first day of school to be defeated by a girl. You are in for a hard year. Anthony, Kenneth and the fat kid are going to tell everyone. You ain’t going to have any friends. The black kids will hate you too. You are going to be getting your ass kicked all year by white and black kids .”
JC meekly said, as the last spark on the horizon flickered, “I didn’t lose.”
Pulling into the drive way Jude said to JC with no remorse, “You know Daddy is going to beat your ass. You’ll be lucky if you’re able to walk. He is going to do it again and again, every week until you beat that little bitch half to death. Monday when you get on the bus, jump her and get it over with. Do not underestimate Daddy’s resolve little brother.”
The truck came to stop. JC looked at the darkness and said, “I know.”
Monday morning JC walked onto the school bus to dead silence and angry stares. He paused for a moment before proceeding down the aisle with a slight limp in his step. On his right he saw Magi and Stacy sitting together. Stacy was on the aisle side and Magi the window. As he passed the rows of seats a few angry black boys offered an assortment of insults. As he approached where Stacy and Magi were sitting the bus began to move. He paused a moment and took a deep breath. He looked ahead and began to slowly pass. JC felt something on his leg, looking down and he saw Stacy’s hand lightly touching him. Stacy didn’t look at him, he just stared straight ahead. JC then noticed Magi looking at him with tears in her eyes and she slightly nodded, and JC returned the gesture. Then Stacy and Magi reached for each other’s hands.
JC found a window seat and rested his head against the glass saying to himself, “A long time ago, in a Galaxy far far away…..”