Char­lottesville

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - David Hamil­ton

When James Alan Mcpher­son joined our fac­ulty in the early 1980s, I wished to get to know him. I’d learned of Jim sev­eral years be­fore through his first book, Hue and Cry. A story from his sec­ond col­lec­tion, El­bow Room, had ap­peared in The Iowa Re­view be­fore I be­came its ed­i­tor. Now I wanted to meet him. I knew we were about the same age, and it seemed likely that we could be­come friends. One way to man­age that would be to work side by side. Jim was com­ing as a re­cent Pulitzer Prize win­ner and a Macarthur Fel­low. He was in the first group awarded Macarthur Fel­low­ships. It would be a coup to en­list him as guest ed­i­tor for a spe­cial is­sue of fic­tion. Jim agreed, but he had a con­di­tion. He didn’t want to go it alone; he wanted me to dig into things with him. That meant meet­ing with him to cull our se­lec­tions from the two-, three-, or four-dozen sto­ries that ar­rived un­so­licited every week. We had a stu­dent as­sis­tant. He and Jim met reg­u­larly. But fi­nally, it came down to Jim and me go­ing over our glean­ings and de­cid­ing which sto­ries would com­pose our is­sue. We chose the River Room, a cafe­te­ria in the stu­dent union across the street from our build­ing with a long view of the river that runs through our cam­pus and town. Crowded over the noon hour, it usu­ally emp­tied out by two. We could al­ways find a ta­ble with a view and with room to spread out manuscripts. In hind­sight, our meet­ings re­sem­bled that sto­ried psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal hour when, after forty min­utes of danc­ing around and avoid­ing the is­sue, you fi­nally get down to busi­ness for the fi­nal ten. It is al­ways pos­si­ble, how­ever, and even likely, that the real busi­ness came and went, per­haps not well ob­served, dur­ing those first forty min­utes. We made most of our se­lec­tions dur­ing the fi­nal frac­tion of the hour or so we spent to­gether. The greater por­tion of our time was like a slow, for­mal dance. Jim had come from Char­lottesville where he had not been happy. In fact, he swore never to re­turn. Twenty years be­fore, as a grad­u­ate stu­dent, I had found it more than com­fort­able. Jim’s home was Sa­van­nah, Ge­or­gia, a seg­re­gated city in a seg­re­ga­tion­ist state. I grew up in ru­ral Mis­souri, a bor­der state with over­whelm­ingly Con­fed­er­ate sym­pa­thies. At its uni­ver­sity, which I did not at­tend, and at UVA, fra­ter­ni­ties waved the rebel flag at foot­ball games; and though I found that tact­less, I had not overtly dis­owned it. We had both gone to seg­re­gated grade schools and high schools, although in­te­gra­tion came to my school

while I at­tended, and it came peace­fully. Gen­er­a­tions be­fore, how­ever, there had been lynch­ings in my county, at least three I knew of. I never asked how many Jim knew of in and around Sa­van­nah. We had both spent a few years in Mas­sachusetts, and that con­junc­tion worked in our fa­vor. I had also spent one long au­tumn at an artists’ re­treat a twen­tyminute boat ride from Sa­van­nah. I loved my time on that is­land and in myr­iad small ways had pros­pered from it. Jim never men­tioned hav­ing been there, and an in­vi­ta­tion, such as I had been handed, would, most likely, never have come. Nor, not be­ing a swim­mer, would he have rel­ished the boat ride out to the is­land. My Sa­van­nah was far from his Sa­van­nah. I had much to an­swer for. Our dance was a test: Jim was test­ing how far he could trust me. A kind of twinned mythol­o­giz­ing took place as we lay our sto­ries down, side by side, not just once but, with vari­a­tions and im­prove­ments, every time we met. Of course, they were dis­junc­tive, but they were com­ple­men­tary. Jim led and I fol­lowed, and it took me sev­eral ses­sions to re­al­ize we were go­ing to swing through these moves, with vari­a­tions, each time. Jim told of his fa­ther who had been the first li­censed African Amer­i­can elec­tri­cian in Ge­or­gia, but who also landed in jail. Then of abuse from a grade-school teacher be­cause his fa­ther was a con. He told also of sub­mit­ting his first sto­ries to a con­test while in col­lege and dis­cov­er­ing the in­struc­tor, whose sig­na­ture was re­quired, had failed to pass his work on. Then how, in the fol­low­ing year, he got around that pro­fes­sor and got his work sub­mit­ted. That led to his meet­ing his first ed­i­tor in Bos­ton, a man who took him out to lunch and coached him, among other things, not to write “moth­er­fucker” more than a very few times. He al­ways smiled telling me that. Much else that Jim told me you can find in the sto­ries and es­says he has writ­ten, and it is not my place to retell them. I of course had to keep the con­ver­sa­tion go­ing with­out hav­ing writ­ten my share of sto­ries, much less prizewin­ners. But I told of my ru­ral back­ground in Mis­souri, my fa­ther and un­cle clear­ing bot­tom­land and de­vel­op­ing a farm and of the odd chance that I would have been ac­cepted at Amherst Col­lege in the late fifties—a white kid from a small Mis­souri town—in an early ef­fort at di­ver­sity. Char­lottesville was a more del­i­cate topic. Jim had gone through a di­vorce there and felt ill-treated. A few years later, as we got to know each other bet­ter, he asked me to write a char­ac­ter ref­er­ence to the court where an ad­just­ment to the de­ci­sion was pend­ing. In any event, I did, even­tu­ally, get around to ad­mit­ting that my own time in Char­lottesville had been pleas­ant, in­so­far as grad­u­ate study is ever pleas­ant, and so to

Dicky, my land­lord, and a sum­mer I spent work­ing for him, which leads back, in a round­about way, to mak­ing my way with Jim. For as I came to know Dicky, I learned that he had started to con­struct a bomb shel­ter in his base­ment, a project soon over­whelmed by its im­pli­ca­tions. He had bro­ken through the ce­ment, chunks of which lay around, some shoved back against a wall. He’d dug into the earth as well, and most of that had been car­ried out­side; but the hole was ir­reg­u­lar, nowhere squared off, and its depth in­ad­e­quate even as a fox­hole. No more than a cou­ple of peo­ple could have lain down. And had they cov­ered it with ply­wood or a tarp, they wouldn’t have been able to raise their heads. It was the sum­mer of 1963, nine months or so after the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis. Dicky had be­gun a bomb shel­ter for his fam­ily. I’m sure he wasn’t alone, though his is one of only two I ever saw. One trou­ble was his fam­ily of six—him­self, his wife, and their four chil­dren. It would take quite some ex­ca­va­tion to con­tain them all, and they weren’t the par­ent birds to push the least from their nest. That would have been a dear lit­tle ras­cal still tod­dling, a boy his two older sis­ters doted on. No, I’m sure the lu­di­crous na­ture of the project dawned on Dicky by the time he had carted away a few bucket-loads of that raw, red Vir­ginia soil. Soil that shocked me. I’d never seen red earth as farm­land be­fore and couldn’t be­lieve it would nur­ture any­thing. Not like the black earth of the Mid­west. But corn grew quite well in Vir­ginia too, I would dis­cover after get­ting used to the red smudges on the rim of these dig­gings, on my shoes, and on ce­ment chunks stacked be­side a base­ment wall. Dicky’s size­able fam­ily only be­gan the prob­lem. His farm wasn’t large, most of it a long pas­ture that swept up a hill to the east of their house with tim­ber run­ning along it on both sides. His home­stead though was the in­for­mal cen­ter of a hid­den neigh­bor­hood. Sev­eral African Amer­i­can fam­i­lies lived in small houses along the road and on side roads run­ning up draws to the north and south of his pas­ture and woods. Sev­eral of those men worked for Dicky, a few reg­u­larly, oth­ers when ex­tra work sought them out. What if, un­der sud­den at­tack, they all came stream­ing in? Dicky saw the fu­til­ity of his project soon enough. He prob­a­bly carted out a few more buck­ets of earth be­fore ad­mit­ting it to his wife. The best an­swer, should the alarm come, would cer­tainly be, as oth­ers have said, to pour that last fine bour­bon and kick back with one’s feet up on the front porch. A sum­mer later, I worked for Dicky. By then I had com­pleted a year of grad­u­ate school and had an MA in hand, but if I was to con­tinue for a PHD, I needed sum­mer work. I was young and mar­ried, and soon enough, my wife and I would start our fam­ily. We al­ready lived on his

grounds, and Dicky made a place for me on his crew from the neigh­bor­hood. His chief busi­ness, be­sides man­ag­ing what­ever farm hold­ings he had, was fence con­struc­tion. Many landown­ers, both ru­ral and ur­ban in Albe­marle County, wanted to fence their land. There were plenty of white board fences, as are fa­mil­iar in horse coun­try. Split-rail fences were an­other pop­u­lar op­tion. Then there were stand­ing or wo­ven slats that formed a shield. Dicky over­saw the in­stal­la­tion of such fences in Char­lottesville and around the county. He had a stand­ing crew of four: Speedy, Char­lie, Brownie, and James. Speedy, the el­dest, was not a steady worker. He seemed to show up when he wished. I sup­pose he was semire­tired. Short, gray­ing, and wiry, his spe­cial skill was with the man­ual post­hole dig­ger. It wasn’t just that he could plunge its open jaws into the earth, draw them closed, and ex­tract the red earth of Vir­ginia faster than the rest of us: it was the pre­ci­sion of his cuts, the neat ver­ti­cal­ity of the sides, the very few bits of crum­ble at the bot­tom. When Speedy fin­ished a hole, it looked like a bucket in which you could store wa­ter. Char­lie was the fore­man, though he never or­dered Speedy around and more than once de­ferred to his quiet voice. “You get morn­ing sick­ness?” he asked when my wife be­came preg­nant with our first child. “I al­ways do,” he re­joined calmly when I re­coiled with sur­prise and said some­thing like, “Of course not.” I still don’t know whether he was pulling my leg. If so, he didn’t be­tray him­self. It seems more likely that he re­ally did share his wife’s dis­com­fort, and I could learn about em­pa­thy from him. I was twenty-five that sum­mer and Char­lie sig­nif­i­cantly older, prob­a­bly closer to forty than fifty. He over­saw load­ing the truck, set­ting up what­ever job, and as­sign­ing tasks, although long habit made most of that un­nec­es­sary. Brownie and James re­minded me of a cou­ple of guys who joined our high school foot­ball team a year or two after the Brown de­ci­sion: Char­lie, a dif­fer­ent Char­lie, and Shag. The year be­fore, they’d been bussed to a high school thirty miles away, since our town only pro­vided an eighth-grade ed­u­ca­tion for them. Any­one who wished to con­tinue could, but they had to ride that bus every day to the seg­re­gated school in a larger town. Now, with their home­town school open to them, they joined us. I never got to know them well, though we were team­mates for three years, and both had to en­dure the only neg­a­tive pub­lic mo­ment I wit­nessed. Our coach, a burly man with curly red hair, had us all in­doors on the gym floor be­fore a black­board. He was di­a­gram­ming a play. The Xs and Os of of­fense and de­fense, the lines from one player to an­other as­sign­ing the blocks, the path the back, pos­si­bly Shag, would take on an off-

tackle slant and, if ev­ery­one did his job, con­tinue for a touch­down. But some­thing was wrong. A de­fender had been left un­blocked. Coach had missed some­thing, and he stood there scratch­ing his head. His back was turned to us as he mut­tered, more to him­self than to us, “There’s a n------- in the wood­pile some­where.” It’s not that we were un­aware of the ex­pres­sion, but there was an au­di­ble gasp and sud­denly thick­ened si­lence. Coach turned around, puz­zled at first, then, scan­ning our faces, caught on. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Never again.” And as far as I know, nei­ther he nor any of his as­sis­tants ut­tered an­other slur. Both Char­lie and Shag were for­mi­da­ble play­ers over the next three years, a good deal bet­ter than I. Shag went on to play in col­lege. After the Brown de­ci­sion, Char­lottesville stalled longer on in­te­gra­tion than my town had; then for sev­eral months in 1959—which was a cou­ple of years after Char­lie, Shag, and I had been through school and grad­u­ated—the gov­er­nor or­dered its high schools closed rather than suf­fer the in­evitable. The courts and the re­solve of par­tic­u­lar African Amer­i­can fam­i­lies soon cor­rected that, but it could well have been the end of Brownie and James’s school­ing. Per­haps they man­aged no more than eighth grade any­way, since in Char­lottesville, too, it was as­sumed “nat­u­ral,” at least nat­u­ral enough, for black youth to put away their books at that point and get on with adult lives. Quite a few white kids dropped out of school at that age too, in both towns. In the small coun­try schools dot­ted around the Mid­west­ern county I came from, boys and girls dressed up smartly for their eighth-grade grad­u­a­tion—it might prove their only one. I ex­pect it would have been for Brownie and James. They were fine work­ers and could han­dle any pick, shovel, trac­tor, ham­mer, or saw. Over time, we shared much of that, one of us hold­ing a plank or a rail for the other, or steady­ing a post in its new hole while the other filled in the earth around it and be­gan to tamp it down. We’d all sit in the shade to­gether with our lunch boxes. I would lis­ten more than talk but seek ways to join in. A grad­u­ate stu­dent and white, I was the odd man in, sure enough. Once I ran into them down­town, quite by ac­ci­dent, and stopped to greet them, but their low­ered glances, def­er­en­tial man­ner, and quick readi­ness to part, more than un­der­scored that. That ac­ci­den­tal cross­ing of paths re­minded me of a time, a few years be­fore, when on spring break, I had driven with two col­lege friends, all three of us white, to New Or­leans and back. We started from Mas­sachusetts and gave a ride, on the first leg of our trip, to one of the few African Amer­i­cans in our col­lege. He was from Nash­ville, right on our way, so we could get him home for the hol­i­days. We started with the

week­end and drove all Satur­day night to ar­rive for Sun­day din­ner. His fam­ily wel­comed us to their am­ple ta­ble of fried chicken, mashed po­ta­toes with gravy, col­lard greens—my first ex­po­sure to those—and pie; and as we sat with them we learned that his fa­ther, the comptroller of Fisk Uni­ver­sity, had spent his morn­ing bail­ing stu­dents out of jail. And not for the first time. Fisk stu­dents were be­ing ar­rested daily, sit­ting-in at seg­re­gated lunch coun­ters down­town. A day later, my white pals and I stopped in Ox­ford, Mis­sis­sippi, Faulkner coun­try, and as I strolled alone down a side­walk in the early af­ter­noon, a black man ap­proached from the op­po­site di­rec­tion. He was older than I, but as we met, he stepped care­fully to the side, one foot off the walk, and would not meet my eyes. I was shocked. That had never hap­pened be­fore, not in my home­town and cer­tainly not in Mas­sachusetts, but Brownie and James acted a bit like that when we met in down­town Char­lottesville. I’m sure had I not stopped to greet them, they would have passed on with, at best, a slight wave. Dur­ing my five years there, it never hap­pened an­other time. Nor did it ever oc­cur to me to won­der, much less ask, what my pay was com­pared to theirs. It’s hard for me to imag­ine that Dicky paid me more than Char­lie. But what about Brownie and James? And what did they know or sus­pect? That is all hid­den by a half cen­tury, now, of never fac­ing the ques­tion. At work, they had lit­tle choice but to ac­cept me; after all, Dicky could hire whomever he liked. The sur­prise was that they ac­cepted me so read­ily. I had dif­fi­culty un­der­stand­ing their speech at first. Their di­alect dif­fered from my own. They, of course, had no trou­ble un­der­stand­ing me. Char­lie, more gre­gar­i­ous than the oth­ers, had a gen­tle teas­ing streak. That helped. I had jeans and old shirts, good enough work clothes, and I even had work shoes, an­kle-high lace-ups of a brown­ish orange cast with thick, blond rub­ber soles that showed ev­i­dence of pre­vi­ous wear. “Where did you get them boots,” Char­lie asked. “Don’t tell me you wear ’em to class.” No, I did not. The uni­form of Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia stu­dents in my day, still a white male pre­serve, was a sport coat and tie with chi­nos or slacks. I had enough of a sup­ply to al­low a lit­tle vari­a­tion through the week. But my Mid­west­ern home was a farm. I had done my share of field­work. I could drive a pickup and soon showed that I could swing the lit­tle Ford trac­tor around in re­verse and line up its mounted auger pre­cisely over the place for the next post hole. I could clean out the hole too, with the two-han­dled dig­ger, clear away brush with an axe, wield a shovel, a ham­mer, or saw. I en­joyed driv­ing the trac­tor. Ours had been much larger John Deeres, and the lit­tle Ford was fun, but I made sure

not to hog it and to stand at the ready with the man­ual dig­ger so no def­er­ence need be shown. Still, Char­lie rather liked get­ting me up on that trac­tor. Then when lunch breaks came, we all flopped down in what­ever shade, shared the wa­ter jug, and I be­gan to share their talk. In fact, they all made al­lowance for me with con­sid­er­able grace. Surely I was po­si­tioned to brush aside our dif­fer­ences more eas­ily than they. But the muted voices of the two younger men, my peers in age, and for a long time their hes­i­ta­tion with eye con­tact, sug­gested that ac­com­mo­dat­ing me was a strug­gle. At home after work, they no doubt told other sto­ries, and I ex­pect I should be glad not to have heard some of that. All in all though, I took com­fort in sup­pos­ing they could also say, “He’s not bad. He’s not afraid of work.” Or maybe even, “He’s com­pe­tent,” which had it come from my un­cle, back on our farm, would have been sig­nif­i­cant praise. On the other hand, I may not have been as com­pe­tent at I like to think, and at home, they may have pointed that out. They must have had some laughs at my ex­pense. As aware as I was of try­ing to join these men, I was in­evitably a worker apart, a fact Dicky re­in­forced by a sep­a­rate task he gave me. His en­ter­prises in­cluded con­tract­ing for the in­stal­la­tion of pri­vate swim­ming pools. A good num­ber of fam­i­lies scat­tered around the county went to the ef­fort, and cost, of hav­ing an out­door pool in­stalled at home. Dicky him­self had one, and his wife spent a good part of her sum­mer there, as did their four chil­dren. My wife and I, who lived in a con­verted grain shed no more than a cou­ple-of-hun­dred yards away, were in­vited to make free with it as well. That in­vi­ta­tion was not ex­tended gen­er­ally. Cer­tainly not to the men with whom I worked. I was fa­mil­iar with pools. Swim­ming had long been part of my life. In­ef­fec­tive as a com­pet­i­tive swim­mer in col­lege, I had learned to swim well. I be­came a cer­ti­fied Red Cross Wa­ter Safety In­struc­tor, a life­guard at my home­town pool, and had for one sum­mer di­rected its in­struc­tional pro­gram. I’d grown up swim­ming in that pool, a WPA project of the 1930s, and at a Boy Scout camp on the Lake of the Ozarks. In a sense, a pool was home ground. My home­town pool had closed down one sum­mer, right after the Brown de­ci­sion, when African Amer­i­cans showed up at its door. As far as our park board was con­cerned, that was one step too far, too soon. But the white kids, too, wanted their pool. The fol­low­ing sum­mer it re­opened, for ev­ery­one. The pri­vate pools of Albe­marle County were an­other mat­ter. Once in­stalled, main­te­nance was nec­es­sary. That meant skim­ming leaves and other de­bris off the sur­face. A rec­tan­gu­lar net with a long alu­minum han­dle was left with each pool for that pur­pose. You could ma­neu­ver

around and reach any­where with it. Then you needed to check the ph level of the wa­ter and some­times add chlo­rine. This was an awk­ward job for any man, and for an African Amer­i­can, it could be worse. You couldn’t tell whom you might run into at what­ever home, in what­ever state of alone­ness or dress. There­fore, Dicky him­self checked up on most of the pools he had con­tracted. In an­other year or two, his teenage son would be ready for the job. That sum­mer, how­ever, it fell to me, and I did not re­sist. In fact, in ret­ro­spect, it seems prob­a­ble that pool main­te­nance was the chief rea­son Dicky hired me. That I could fill the rest of my time with his crew was a bonus, but it wasn’t as if I was needed there. Twice a week, I took Dicky’s pickup and a half-day or more off from fence build­ing to make the rounds of pools scat­tered around the county. Crozet, Earlysville, White Hall, Free Union, Ivy, Shad­well, Keene, Covesville, and Keswick were vil­lage names I swept through, usu­ally on my way to a nearby farm. No stop took long. I’d skim the leaves, check the chlo­rine bal­ance, and hop back in the pickup for my next stop. I’d have my lunch­box with a sand­wich, an ap­ple or orange, and a small ther­mos of milk. I drank cof­fee by then, but it wasn’t the sta­ple it has since be­come. And when­ever I could, be­fore re­turn­ing to the crew, I’d stop at a small coun­try store for a Fudgsi­cle. Fudgsi­cles hadn’t al­ways been my fa­vorite sum­mer treat. All man­ner of ice cream had been, es­pe­cially Dairy Queen soft serves with straw­berry top­pings. But that sum­mer it was Fudgsi­cles, a choco­late con­coc­tion of some­thing-like-ice-cream draped on a stick that I sa­vored all the way down to the stick with­out, I’d hope, spat­ter­ing too much on my shirt­front, not so easy to ac­com­plish, driv­ing those back roads slowly with the win­dows down. Then, that stolen plea­sure over, I’d haul on home and join the crew, wher­ever they were, to man a shovel or a post hole dig­ger, or ma­neu­ver the lit­tle Ford trac­tor. The guys al­ways seemed to wel­come me back, often with some josh­ing about where I’d been and what I’d been up to. Not that I mer­ited any thanks for it, but they were all aware, much more than I, of what I saved them from. What awk­ward­ness, or worse. Which leads to an ex­ten­sion of my story that I couldn’t tell Jim those first times we met since it hadn’t hap­pened yet. But a few years later, long de­parted from Char­lottesville and in charge of our widely, if thinly distributed lit­er­ary mag­a­zine, I re­ceived a sub­mis­sion from Yusef Ko­mun­yakaa. He sent sev­eral po­ems tucked into an en­ve­lope with his SASE. We hadn’t en­tered the era of dig­i­tal sub­mis­sions, so ev­ery­thing came in en­velopes, and self-ad­dressed, stamped en­velopes came with them. Every week new sto­ries and po­ems ar­rived, sev­eral dozen of each.

Sev­eral dozen en­velopes, usu­ally sev­eral dozen dou­bled, some­times tripled, and, usu­ally, three to five po­ems in each. We had not heard of Mr. Ko­mun­yakaa, but when his en­ve­lope came, I found a poem called “Work.” It told of a young man mow­ing the lawn of a coun­try home and of his re­sist­ing the temp­ta­tion to look at a woman, nude, in a ham­mock be­side the pool, a pitcher of le­mon­ade sweat­ing be­side her. The speaker sweats too, and not just from his la­bor. “I won’t look at her,” he says and re­peats that sev­eral times in a nar­row poem that in most mag­a­zines would take up most of two pages. It’s a gar­den scene, a fallen gar­den. Faulkner’s ghost hov­ers nearby. Johnny Mathis, one of the first African Amer­i­can croon­ers to be­come pop­u­lar with white au­di­ences, sings “like a whis­per” to the nude, white woman. Ko­mun­yakaa rev­els in the sen­su­al­ity of the scene. “Bum­ble­bees nudge pale blos­soms.” The worker breathes in the “Scent of honey­suckle” and “the in­sin­u­a­tion of buds / Tipped with cinnabar.” His fi­nal im­age is a “bed / Of crushed nar­cis­sus / As if gods wres­tled there,” which they did, the gods of de­sire re­sist­ing those of temp­ta­tion, while toy­ing with it. It didn’t take long for me to re­mem­ber my sum­mer with Char­lie, Speedy, Brownie, and James and to ac­cept the poem with a silent nod to them. And I was es­pe­cially glad to learn that Ko­mun­yakaa is, in­deed, African Amer­i­can. An eas­ier story to tell, and one that hap­pened sooner, was of how news of the in­te­gra­tion to come ar­rived in our seg­re­gated high school. I was a fresh­man, in an Eng­lish class, and our teacher was ful­mi­nat­ing over what would soon be­fall us. “It’s wrong,” she said, “just wrong. I won’t stand for it!” I did have the wit to imag­ine, well, what would she do, sit? “It’ll lead to mis­ce­gena­tion,” she went on. I’m not sure I had heard the word be­fore, but I could guess from the con­text. Ever ea­ger to con­tinue our ed­u­ca­tion, she helped us out: “God made the races sep­a­rate and so He meant for them to stay.” That’s when a seat­mate, a girl I doted on, raised her hand and when rec­og­nized of­fered, “Maybe God has changed his mind.” “Ah,” Jim smiled, “al­ready an Omni-amer­i­can,” which I sup­pose he meant only half se­ri­ously, but at least she had grasped some­thing of Al­bert Mur­ray’s mes­sage long be­fore his book of that name came out. Jim spoke warmly of Mur­ray, who worked closely with Ralph El­li­son, and of both as men­tors. Omni-amer­ica was their sub­ject, with the African Amer­i­can al­ways here and in­te­gral to the story, whether whites ac­knowl­edged that or not. Soon I would ac­cept an in­ter­view with El­li­son, and did so think­ing of Jim’s ad­mi­ra­tion for him, par­tic­u­larly when El­li­son felt sure he had caught whis­pers of African Amer­i­can mu­sic in “The Waste Land.” Whis­pers he as­sumed Eliot had picked

up as a youth in St. Louis, along our mid­land river, a river whose main trib­u­tary I had grown up be­side. At about the time I met Jim, I was spend­ing a week each sum­mer in Mo­bile, Alabama, run­ning a work­shop for col­lege teach­ers, and lived alone, through that week, in a house on a golf course out­side town. Every morn­ing, I walked down a side road to a club­house with a small restau­rant. I had ba­con, eggs, grits—i re­ally got into the grits, warm with but­ter melt­ing onto them—toast, and cof­fee, and read the morn­ing pa­per. There were rarely any other cus­tomers at the hour, but my stay crossed with what must have been break time for groundskeep­ers. Usu­ally four or five would come in for a late break­fast. They were a mixed group, black and white, and had no trou­ble sit­ting to­gether. There they’d be, a dis­tinctly in­te­grated crew of young adults, chat­ting, laugh­ing in the deep­est South. Omni-amer­ica was show­ing it­self. I sus­pect though that it did not ex­tend to their go­ing out to­gether on Satur­day nights. One grad­u­ate stu­dent I had worked with came from Colorado but had fam­ily in Mis­sis­sippi. As a child, she spent sum­mers there, with her grand­mother, and for her the­sis she wrote of hav­ing re­turned, the sum­mer be­fore, and ap­peal­ing to her grand­mother to visit the African Amer­i­can woman who had cared for her dur­ing those dis­tant sum­mers. That woman, now el­derly, no longer worked for her grand­mother but lived not far away. Her grand­mother balked. A visit wasn’t pos­si­ble. But our writer nagged un­til her grand­mother found a way. They would take a walk to­gether, grand­mother and grand­daugh­ter. They would wear warm-ups, satin pants and jacket, so it was clear they were out for ex­er­cise, not to so­cial­ize. But they could just hap­pen to walk by the other woman’s house. A knock on the door would do no harm, and so a brief visit, one woman stand­ing on her porch, the other two on the road that ran be­side it. When I told of Dicky’s bomb shel­ter and his hy­po­thet­i­cal re­sort to fine bour­bon, Jim smiled and said he and his pals had equally ex­trav­a­gant thoughts about those fi­nal mo­ments, but they had noth­ing to do with bour­bon. What I learned through our ses­sions, above all else, was how easy it was for me to not think about race, whereas it was al­ways on Jim’s mind. Jim worked hard at be­ing an Omni-amer­i­can. That was the work of his life. It wasn’t mine. In Jim’s later years we formed a habit of oc­ca­sional Sun­day brunches after which, often, we’d take a drive in the coun­try. We might stop some­where for an ice cream cone. Jim would often re­mark with sur­prise that I seemed to know the names of birds and trees, some­thing he had never had the in­cli­na­tion or time for. But on the ground that most mat­tered be­tween us, Omni-amer­ica and how

we ex­pe­ri­enced it, I was al­ways catch­ing up to truths that Jim had long pon­dered. Through telling and retelling our sto­ries, Jim and I earned a de­gree of friend­ship that en­dured through the re­main­der of his days. It would be pre­sump­tu­ous for me to as­sume it was more than it was, which at best, per­haps, amounted to a cour­tesy Jim ex­tended al­most as if, in­deed, we were friends. At cour­tesy, ci­vil­ity, and ne­go­ti­at­ing the right dis­tance, Jim was sub­tler than my for­mer stu­dent’s grand­mother. In any case, we put our is­sue to­gether, col­lab­o­rated an­other time or two, and kept on see­ing each other un­til he died. All that while, we spoke least of Char­lottesville, though it was never dis­tant from our thoughts. One ex­cep­tion was my telling of a Joan Baez con­cert there. The hall was long and nar­row and Ms. Baez her own, lonely ac­com­pa­ni­ment. In fact, the stage was bare, just a back­less stool un­der a light. She took her place on that stool, played her gui­tar, and sang. One song after an­other. The long aisle lifted away from the stage so that we looked down on her. She seemed im­mensely vul­ner­a­ble. A glass of wa­ter stood on a sec­ond back­less stool be­side her. As her con­cert came to an end, she took the chance of singing “We Shall Over­come.” There was that hushed mo­ment be­tween num­bers and no an­nounce­ment of what would come next. Baez just plucked the chord and be­gan. A hush fell over the house. She ges­tured for us to join in but most held back. A few an­gry mur­murs arose around us. Ap­proval of this an­them was not yet wide­spread, cer­tainly not in Char­lottesville. I would love to say my wife and I were among the first to join her, but we weren’t. But a few did, then a few more, and as sides were be­ing drawn, we added our voices. So with help from about a quar­ter, maybe a third of the house, Joan Baez pre­vailed with her song. Then she had to make her exit by walk­ing up that long aisle. In fact, she had to be es­corted, and I felt I read both worry and de­fi­ance in her fea­tures as cam­pus se­cu­rity hus­tled her out. When the is­sue Jim guest edited ap­peared in 1984, it hap­pened to co­in­cide with the cen­ten­nial of Huck­le­berry Finn. I com­mis­sioned a wood­cut for our cover. The artist, one of our grad­u­ate stu­dents, made a clever one of Huck sit­ting on a dock with a pipe in his mouth, read­ing our mag­a­zine. There’s a smile. Mean­while, a steam­boat passes by, one of those old pad­dle­wheel­ers em­blem­atic of the era. Of course, Jim, Huck’s Jim, isn’t in the pic­ture, and it never oc­curred to me to make that sug­ges­tion.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.