A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
On the afternoon of April 5, 1919 in Sugars Spring, Arkansas, the Sugars Spring men’s baseball team, boasting three of the best hitters and the very best pitcher in both Hamstead and Harwell counties, played the coloreds of Chickenham. For practice, and for fun. And because the Hope Cougars, not wishing to blemish their record, sent word by Wilburn Mott, the mail carrier, that they were down with the fever. They laid out the diamond in Amos Henry’s cow pasture as they didn’t want to scratch and scar their new field between the school grounds and the church on the ridge. And they didn’t want to play in Chickenham — though Lincoln Bradley, who owned the Chickenham store and an automobile, told them they were most assuredly welcome — because somehow it didn’t set right being hosted by coloreds. So they settled on Amos Henry’s cow pasture in the valley. Henry’s was the last white house, if you didn’t count the Ardis Young shacks, before getting into colored town — which the locals called Chickenham and the coloreds called Bethel — but which was part of Sugars Spring, tax-wise and voting-wise.
That day had dawned cold with a starched white sky; frost made an unusually late appearance when it nipped Cora Emery’s garden down in the valley. But Cora had risen in the half-dark and poured water on her jonquils, now in full bloom and yellow as a banty egg yolk, so they would escape the burn of the gold spring sun that by afternoon had the men on the Sugars Spring team shedding their flannel shirts and rolling the sleeves of their undershirts above their elbows.
David Ben Sugars, who had come back from the war totally intact, even went so far as to strip naked — to the waist — causing the young girls to titter. The women looked down at the ground or at each other, pretending not to notice how finely sculptured his body was, already bronzed this early in the year and gleaming with sweat in the heavy air that had descended on the valley. Then Mr. Davis Frix, an elder at the Baptist church, quietly called David Ben aside and asked him if he didn’t think it a might improper to dress that way with womenfolk around. David Ben said Mr. Davis Frix was surely right and he had plumb forgot his manners; so he put on his undershirt and rolled up the sleeves. But still he looked naked somehow.
David Ben hit two home runs, one with nobody on, and another with the bases loaded. Then he rolled down the sleeves of his undershirt, put on his checked shirt, whacked his cap against his thigh, sending out a puff of red dust fine as gun powder, and excused himself as he had to drive his mother to her ailing sister’s in Story Springs.
Rosa Ellen Huntley in her grass green dress stepped out from the shade of the catalpa tree where she was watching the game alone — like a hunter stalking a five-point buck — and stopped smack-dab in front of David Ben as he passed. She batted her eyes — blue as a May morning — and said, David Ben, I’d surely like to take a little drive with you sometime in that new car of yours.
David Ben looked like a jack rabbit caught in the lights of an automobile. He toed the dirt and said surely and then he stepped around her and walked past the women and the girls, nodding his head to the women. Miz Elda Reed said he sure would be one fine catch if he could manage not to fall into the snares of the likes of Rosa Ellen, who had already led too many, young and old alike, to their damnation, destroying her dear father, who was the best minister their church had ever had, along the way, and that only Rosa Ellen’s strong resemblance to her dear, dead mother prevented him from casting her out into the world. The women agreed and one of them added, thank God the Lord had been merciful in not letting Rosa Ellen’s momma live to see her daughter come to such an end.
Most of the Sugars Spring team got hits, and by the end of the third inning the score was twenty-one to nothing. It wasn’t much of a game to watch. But school was turned out for planting and most of the farmers, after waiting out the wet boll weevil weather of early March, had finished getting their crops in the day before.
Hoss Sutton, an outfielder black as shoe polish, kept hollering at the top of his lungs, I gots it, I gots it, don’t nobody gets in my way, I gots this one. But the balls slid right through his glove like quicksilver. And Cabbage Turner, whose real name was Isaiah, kept skidding on his behind and sending up a trail of red dust just as he was about to pick up a grounder. Little Abe Turner, the pitcher, who was at least six-foot-three, threw two zinger strikes to a Sugars Spring batter, then in his elation threw the next four so wild that not even a catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals could have caught them, much less Rooster McElroy, who must have been all of five-foot-two. The balls went sailing over his jumping height and each time Rooster hollered at Little Abe, calling him a dumb turkey.
The women who sat under the magnolia tree on oak benches that Amos Henry had brought out from his house had supper to see to, so they gathered to leave. The young girls in pigtails and curls and starched cotton dresses said, aw, Momma, can’t we stay a while longer, and the women said not to whine as that would get them nowhere in life. By the start of the fourth inning the only ones watching were Cora Emery, a widow and a Yankee who did what she pleased; Rosa Ellen, the pretty daughter of the minister who did what she pleased; and Isannah Sanders, whose husband — old enough to be her father — loved her so much he couldn’t bear for her to be out of his sight, and whose red hair sliding out from her bonnet burned the eyes of the players in the field.
Colored women with homespun dresses and kerchief-covered heads — women so old their bones creaked as loud as the door hinge on the Sugars Spring Baptist Church — sat on stumps and upturned buckets under the stand of cottonwoods out in left field. A bevy of children, barefoot and dressed in faded, oversized clothes, buzzed around them. Their laughter pelting across the field prompted Miz Abigail Frix, as she led the women up the slanted, rose-colored road toward town proper, to allow how coloreds got more enjoyment out of life than whites, and that maybe it was indeed a blessing to be simple.
This would not have been a story to be telling years later if Samuel Daniel McElroy, Rooster’s cousin from Hayden’s Landing, had not driven by in a mule-drawn wagon on the way to Pleasant Gilbert’s store to pick up a gasket Mr. Ernest Stone had ordered for his truck. Sammy Dan stopped in the middle of the road and called Rooster over to ask him if he wanted a day or two of work for Mr. Stone cutting barrel heading in Saline bottom. And Rooster said sure as shootin’ he did. Then Rooster asked Sammy Dan if he wad’n going to have a time at bat. Sammy Dan said he wad’n interested in playing the fool such as what Rooster was. Rooster said he supposed Sammy Dan had the bodacity to hit the ball clear to burning hell and back. And Sammy Dan said he would just this once.
And with that, Samuel Daniel McElroy climbed down off his wagon, told his mule to stay put, took the bat from Rooster’s hands, kept his eyes to the ground in case any women — especially Rosa Ellen Huntley — were still around, and lumbered over to home plate, which was a pink-flowered flour sack filled from Amos Henry’s white sand ditch that marked the boundary in right field.
Red Cummings, who laid claim to being the best pitcher west of the Mississippi, took one look at this tall boy — skinny as a stray dog, with shoulders as wide as Red River, and eyes as sleepy looking as a Saturday night drunk’s — and decided he’d have himself a little fun. Red turned his head to the left, shot a mouthful of spit and tobacco to the ground with the force of a bullet, and said, now that we got Sammy Dan the great mule trainer up here, let’s make it worth something. You manage to get a hit off what I’m gonna throw at you, Sammy Dan, and we’ll declare you Chickenham boys the winners. That all right with y’all? Red gave a sweeping look to his team in the pasture. No one disagreed.
That all right with you, Sammy Dan? Red asked with a smile that turned up the left corner of his mouth but left the right corner just sitting there. Sammy Dan didn’t say a word, didn’t even shake his head. He just wiped his forehead, dark and wet as molasses, hunched over the bat, and looked Red smack-dab in the eyes with eyes no longer carrying the look of sleep — eyes as wide open as a deer’s — for just one second before they eased almost shut again.
For that second everything came to a standstill. The colored women under the cottonwood trees quit laughing; the children grabbed the tails of their dresses or a piece of an old woman’s sleeve, and twisted them tight around their hands, tiny and dark as walnuts.
The women parading up the road toward town proper were at least a hundred yards away when they heard the stillness and stopped and turned around. Miz Frix shifted her slate-colored umbrella to her left shoulder and stood in the middle of the rose-colored road to watch. The other women put their hands to their gingham bonnets to extend their view. The girls said, what’s happening, Ma? And the women, not knowing, said, be silent for just one minute please.
The small boys standing around the water bucket quit their game of splash. Thurman Eugene Meyers put his hand in his pocket, hoping to keep his pet pond frog, who croaked at awkward times, quiet.
The men out in the field were thankful their backs were to the sun so hot it was white. They’d hate for a nigger like Sammy Dan McElroy to get a lucky hit. Buckner Rose, the first baseman and veteran member of the team, prayed the Lord would let Sammy Dan ground out to him. He wanted a chance to tell his friend Ernest Stone, that nigger you say can outwork ten of us couldn’t hit no further than first base — an old codger like me put him out.
Floyd Dillard, the second baseman, already had his mind on paying an after-dark call to Rosa Ellen, whose sashaying, he was sure, was meant for him. And as Curtistine, his bride-to-be — Curtistine with the pale gray eyes and a small, tight mouth — was visiting cousins in Hope, there’d be no need for explaining.
William Burl Cane, the third baseman, who came from no good but who could make an engine purr, who could split a leaf with a gun, and who could stop any ball that came his way and place it in the middle of Buckner Rose’s glove before you could draw air for a sneeze, just wanted the game to be over. He was thinking about Miz Melvina’s moonshine, and how good it felt when Delie — the colored woman with glossy hair — stroked him with her hand until he started saying, Jesus, God, Almighty, damn.
If this were a made-up story, Red Cummings would pitch five times, the tension building and hanging in the air so you could see it and give it a color. But as it happened, the first pitch, Red’s special, laden with spit and tobacco juice, zigzagged its way home. Just as it reached the pink-flowered flour sack, it curved like a martin changing directions. Any real ballplayer would have known it was outside by a mile.
But Sammy Dan reached for it — a slow, easy stroke with the air of a man taking a leisurely stretch upon rising the day after the crops are in — and sent the ball heavenward, directly over Red Cummings, over Floyd Dillard, over the center fielder, over Amos’s cow Mischief heavy with calf, over the barbed wire fence that separated Amos’s pasture from Ervin Robertson’s, over Ervin Robertson’s coffee-colored cow pond, and into the grove of persimmon trees that shaded Ervin’s treasured Guernsey bull.
Sammy Dan ran around the bases, not looking at Buckner Rose, or Floyd Dillard, or William Burl, stretching his legs out to giant strides and swinging his elbows forward and back with the precision of a machine. At home plate the catcher — whose name no one claims to remember — stood on the pink-flowered sack in the quaint notion that the ball might miraculously return from Ervin Robertson’s persimmon grove. Sammy Dan plowed right into him, knocking out the catcher’s breath and a front tooth.
Sammy Dan might have redeemed himself somewhat had he picked up the catcher and told him how very, mighty, even powerful sorry he was. But he didn’t. He just ceased running, dropped his wide shoulders a bit and walked at a mule’s pace over to Rooster and told him to be at Mr. Stone’s logging camp by sunup, climbed onto the wagon and made a soft click-click sound to his mule who lumbered on down the road.
The women stood like wax statues in the middle of the road until Sammy Dan got so close they moved aside to permit him to pass. Sammy Dan kept his eyes to the ground, as did the mule, whose greased body had attracted enough of the floating dust to turn him the color of cinnamon. The girls said, goodness, Ma, what’s the name of that one, he is so strong. And the mothers said, don’t you ever, ever in all your born days let your father hear you say that.
Rosa Ellen Huntley caught a ride home to the parsonage with Floyd Dillard, who got out, ran around and opened the door for her, and said she sure was a sight in that green dress and that he ’spected he’d probably come scratching on her window screen around midnight. Rosa Ellen flashed her wide smile and with a voice as sweet as a peach said she ’spected he just better not. Then her blue eyes turned hard as marbles before she whipped around and walked up the gumwood sidewalk to the house.
Cora Emery, glad that the night was warm, sat out on her front porch eating her supper of cornbread crumbled into a glass of buttermilk. She watched her azalea bush soften from crimson to pink as the sun faded and the sky splattered with colors in the last light of day, and missed her Jimmy, who had been the best third baseman in all of southwest Arkansas well into his sixties. He sure would have got a kick out of that one, she said, first to herself and then out loud. And then she chuckled at the game and at herself and missed her husband some more.
Isannah Sanders walked home with her husband, both of them caught up in their own silence as heavy between them as the weight of their sleeping child in the husband’s arms. After supper and after baby William was once more asleep, Isannah sat at her dresser in her white nightgown and brushed her hair, red as a sunset and flowing to her waist. That sure was a sight to behold, she said, thinking only to think it, and her husband’s eyes flared and he said what and she said seeing a ball hit so far, and he said she should think on better things, he said she was still a child in too many ways, he said it was time she grew up, he said she was a mother now. He got out the Bible and for their nightly reading, read from Proverbs about a woman whose price was far above rubies.
The last thing Red Cummings’ neighbors heard before they dropped off to sleep — long after it was too dark for anyone but an owl or an Indian to see — was the thudding sound of a baseball hitting the basket Red kept nailed to the barn.
The men went home and said to their wives, there’s a red sky this evening, that means good weather for painting tomorrow, or for mending fences. Or they said, I’m not hungry, and then they ate a plate or two of potatoes, the last of the canned string beans, a jar of pickled peaches, or several slabs of smoked ham, and went out to their barns and jabbed the pitchfork into the hay.
Some of them said, that nigger look up when he passed you today? And then when the children were asleep they lifted their nightshirts, yanked their wives’ gowns up to their waists, jerked down the pantaloons, and rammed themselves into them, rougher than usual. Or they turned their backs and feigned sleep when their wives lifted the quilts, lay down, and moved their bodies taut against their husbands’ backs. The husbands listened to the tremor in their wives’ breathing; they smelled the rose water, the lilac water the women had sprinkled in their hair, the talcum they had dusted on their shoulders before coming to bed. But the husbands did not wake up.
The young girls, having said their prayers, lay in bed looking at the outline of the black trees against a sky that had turned from pink to red to violet and now was clean and starless, lit by an orange moon. They pulled their braids or twisted their curls around their fingers or tugged at the ruffle of their white nightdresses, and tried not to think how David Ben Sugars’ body might feel, soaped clean of sweat but still warm from the sun’s heat, crawling in between clean, freshly starched sheets to lie beside them and twist their hair with his strong, brown fingers and gaze with them out the window onto the fields ripe with seed, gaze out onto the sagging barns and the soft-lit houses on the other ridge.
They tried to cast out the image of a colored man sending a ball into the firmament — higher than they had seen any birds fly, even the winter geese heading for Mossy Lake and then on to Louisiana. They tried to erase the image of a nigger bounding with the grace of a deer around the flour sack and burlap bases in Mr. Amos Henry’s pasture.
They got out of bed and got down on their knees for a second prayer, their knees feeling the cold of the March night slipping through the planked floor. They smelled the April night, perfumed with the scent of jonquil and locust and dogwood and magnolia and jasmine. They knelt there, needing to pray yet not knowing how to name their sin.
Down in Chickenham, Rooster got pie-eyed on Miss Melvina’s whiskey barrel drippings and bragged all night to his children about how they won, kicked the tar out of them peckerwoods. And his wife said, Rooster, you talk like that in daylight and I’ll be a widow before I’m thirty. And Rooster said, don’t worry baby, this old Rooster wad’n born yesterday. Then Rooster put his head down on the harvest table between the gravy skillet and his bottle of moonshine, as clear as spring water, and slept. He didn’t wake until the sun was 7 o’clock high and glaring in his window. He swore at himself, at his wife, and even pulled his oldest boy out of bed by his big toe, saying, goddammit boy, you get outa that bed and feed our sow.
He slung on his boots that his wife had tugged off when she guided him to bed after he had passed out, and with his head pounding and his mouth tasting more foul than he could name, he lit out for the bottom. If he hurried he would only be a couple of hours late. He knew Sammy Dan would call him a lazy nigger, but Rooster knew he could talk Ernest Stone into giving him a chance to make amends.
William Burl drank Miss Melvina’s moonshine and ate Delie’s squirrel stew and promised Delie’s sons he’d learn them to shoot. Then when Delie had rubbed Crazy Sadie’s ointment of lard and spirits of turpentine onto Baby-girl’s chest, and had wiped her sons’ faces and feet with a wet rag and told them not to leave their room, as a matter of fact not to get off their pallets or she’d blister their behinds, she sat down on her bed where William Burl was lying in wait, unbuttoned his pants, reached for him and said, ah yea, here it be. And soon, William Burl screamed, Jesus, God, Almighty, damn.
Then he put Delie’s head, heavy with her glossy black hair, on his chest and slept.
And Delie slept until Baby-girl cried in the middle of the night. Then Delie suckled her and rocked her and sang sleeping songs to her that Delie’s grandmother, an old woman with one eye brown and one eye green, had learned in her slave days in Alabama. Baby-girl finally slept — just as the sun broke over the red horizon behind the church where Delie went on Sundays and prayed for forgiveness.
Delie crawled with the quietness of a shadow over William Burl and gingerly laid Baby-girl on the foot of the bed against the wall. She lay there smelling the turpentine for a long while trying to think of a name for her daughter besides Baby-girl.
But no names came. So she turned to watch the sleeping William Burl. He was a good-looking man for a white man. He had dark curls, and his eyes shaded from green to gray to blue, depending on the light. This was the first time he had stayed all night. She wondered what this meant, if anything. She wondered if he would ever come to her without a bottle of whiskey in his hand. She remembered the first time he came to her with three squirrels for stewing in one hand and a jar of what he called Melvina’s Magic in the other.
She took off her nightdress. Then she lifted the top sheet and straddled William Burl the way she used to straddle her pony Blackie. She leaned down and ran her tongue round and round in William Burl’s ear. She felt him stirring under her. She leaned so that her nipples brushed his. And now he had grown hard. She eased down over him just as he opened his eyes, which were horse-apple green in the first light of day. He said, Jesus, Delie, what are you doing? She flashed her wide smile. They tossed about enough to get tangled in the top sheet and William Burl and Delie both hollered, Jesus, Jesus, but it came out a muffled scream.
lt woke her sons in the other room. They pulled their quilt over their heads and pretended to sleep. It woke Baby-girl, who started to cry. Delie untangled herself from the sheet and from William Burl and then stretched her smooth arms — the color of pecans — out to pat Baby-girl. “It’s okay, Baby-girl. Momma’s here.”
William Burl said, God almighty Delie, what in tarnation is this spell you’ve cast on me? Delie didn’t say anything because she knew it had no name.
The very old women waddled home and waited for their daughters or granddaughters who had been in Sugars Spring cleaning houses and putting in gardens and washing and ironing clothes and cooking meals and beating feather mattresses strung over clotheslines.
After supper and dishes, after sweeping and mopping, they sat out on the porch and watched the very young play chase and kick the can in the yard; they watched the fireflies light the fields until the west bank turned purple and slid off the sky and the moon hung there like a giant lantern.
The old women told the young women what they’d seen. The old women said Samuel Daniel McElroy would bring trouble down on their heads as surely as God was up in heaven’s abode. They said he was the spitting image of his Uncle Ransom who had started the awful riot forty years ago getting a slew of their own — and only one white man — killed. They said he’d already got hisself shot once down in Louisiana for not moving his wagon out of a white man’s way. They said in all their born days they’d never seen anything quite like it. They said lawdy he sure did hit that ball far.