|I’ve never spoken of that August night so long ago. I managed to tuck the incident away in my mind’s archives, sealed and labeled as mine, alone. The memory was a constant ember in my heart, now fanned to flames by the news of my father’s death, news that resurrected the past rather than laid a ghost to rest.
I hadn’t seen the old man, or my small home town, since I left for LSU on a baseball scholarship. Mama passed away in my senior year. Nixon was pulling troops out of Vietnam by then, and the draft was winding down, so I took the scholarship and ran. I packed what little I had, and, without ceremony, I headed to the bus station, stopping by the cemetery to say goodbye to Mama. The gnarled branches of the oak tree seemed to reach out for me as it loomed among the headstones. I disregarded its demonic demeanor and continued my escape, never looking back.
The nursing home had called and said the Judge died in his sleep, alone. As it should be, I thought. I knew I had to put him to rest, put it all to rest. I decided to make the trip back to Pleasant Hill, not to honor his life but to celebrate his death. Upon arrival from Baton Rouge, I debated on staying in the old house of my childhood, but years of neglect and too many ghosts had left it uninhabitable, so I opted for the Regency on the edge of town.
As I lay in the dark room and listened to the frogs from nearby Arkabutla Lake, I began to unlock the file I had hidden away for forty-one years. I wondered if the town had changed, if the community had learned how to live with one another since those dark days of 1969 Mississippi.
Toby cast his line into the lake with a flick of his bamboo pole and settled back against a tree stump. His arms rested on his bent-up knees as he held the pole in one hand and watched the red cork float on the calm water. “Alls I’m saying is it’s time for me to go. There’s a darkness in this town, Stevie. I gotta find out if it’s everywhere, or just here.”
I allowed my follow-through of the phantom pitch to complete its inertial arc across my left shoulder, brought the Louisville Slugger to my side, and looked down at my friend. He turned to face me and I caught a glimpse of his pain and anger.
I’d known Tobias Washington since I was five. He was already in second grade when his mom came to work for us as our housekeeper, and, in the summer months, she brought Toby with her. She went about her dusting as she hummed Negro spirituals and sometimes Mama asked Mrs. Washington to join her on the porch for a glass of cool, sweet lemonade while they watched Toby teach me how to catch a baseball. Daddy was always too busy at the courthouse for such activities. On Wednesday nights, Toby’s mom would let him stay and watch the Virginian on our new color TV. While Mama made popcorn for us, the Judge stayed in his study with the door closed.
I placed my bat in the rear, leather saddle-bag Toby’s dad had made for each of our bikes and sat on the bank, Indian-style, as I thought about what he’d just said. I had seen the town-folk shake their heads, disapprovingly, when they saw us together, riding our bikes down Pleasant Avenue towards the lake or tossing a baseball in the park. But I didn’t know, then, just how deep that darkness went.
I unfolded my legs and reached in my pocket for the church-key, grabbed the Coca Cola bottles out of the paper sack next to me and popped the lids. I handed one to Toby. “I hear there’s a storm coming. Folks at Ike’s was buying up all the batteries and ice. They say it’s a hurricane, Hurricane Camille, and it’s supposed to hit the coast tonight.”
Toby looked up at the blue August sky. “We’re too far north to get the worst of it, but I reckon the Judge will be closing up the court house early this afternoon. Shouldn’t you be getting your little, white butt home ‘fore he catches you collaborating with the enemy?”
“Aw—Daddy’s cool, man. He even called an hour recess last year when word of Mr. King’s assassination hit town.”
Toby rolled his eyes but never turned his face from the cork floating on the water. “Wow, a whole hour, huh? He should get the Nobel Peace Prize for--“ Toby jerked the pole as the cork dipped under the surface of the lake. He flipped a good size bass over his shoulder and it landed in the dirt gasping for air and fighting the hook. Toby dropped the pole and jumped up to retrieve his prize, but hesitated as he leaned over the dying fish.
“That’s gonna fry up real nice, Toby. Get him off the hook so I can catch one.”
Toby freed the bass from its grapple, walked to the water line, and gently slid his catch back into the lake.
“Whadcha do that for, stupid?”
Toby turned to me, wiping his hands over the thighs of his patched jeans. “Don’t have a cow, man. When I come back from Nam, he’ll be twice as big and we’ll get him then.”
A hot wind ruffled my long blonde hair. I looked up and saw dark clouds swirling over the Lake from the northeast. “We better get going. You wanna come watch some TV? They’re having a special tonight about Buzz Aldrin and Neal Armstrong’s walk on the moon last month.” We packed up our gear and simultaneously kicked the kick-stands and jumped on our bikes.
“Nah, man, I better head home. Ma’ll be worried if I’m out in a storm. Besides, the lights will probably go out, anyway. The way this wind’s picking up, we may all be on the moon by tomorrow.”
I poked Toby in the arm and laughed. “You’re weirdsville, man. Let’s cut through the cemetery.” We pedaled off, racing like competing brothers.
As we weaved between the tombstones, we came upon five men gathered, twenty feet away from us, around a patch of ground at the base of a gnarled oak tree. Toby and I braked our bikes and straddled the seats, our shoes planted in the grass. They were cheering and slapping each other on the back, their attention fixed on the center of the circle. Toby eased closer, and, as the men whirled around, I saw a young black girl pinned beneath a sixth man. She turned toward us and her wide, brown eyes revealed a terror I had never seen before.
Toby jumped off of his bike as the first cold drops of rain slid from the sky. He ran to me and ripped my Louisville Slugger from my saddle-bag. He held it over his right shoulder and approached the guy.
“Toby, no! There’s too many of them.” I placed one foot on the pedal, ready to bolt.
“Get off of her, you white scum.” Toby’s voice was bold and unafraid--a man’s voice.
“What’s it to you, Boy?” I recognized the speaker. James Wilson spat out the last word with a contemptuous sneer, and his brother Jeremy backed him up. “Run on home, Boy, and take your nigger loving friend with you.”
Toby swung at the girl’s assailant and laid his head open. He slumped off of the girl and lay, motionless, in the grass.
The men lunged at Toby, disarming him--the girl obviously forgotten. I saw her crawl backwards toward the oak tree. She looked at Toby just as James Wilson punched him above his left eyebrow. Blood, mixed with rain, ran down Toby’s face. The girl rose to her feet and ran, stumbling over the graves to freedom.
I shoved my bike to the ground and ran at the men, wild with rage. I retrieved my bat from the mud and charged into the group surrounding Toby. Hot tears blinded my aim and the bat was wrenched from my hands. Jeremy grabbed me by the front of my t-shirt, scrunching Bob Dylan’s face in his huge fist. “You’re the Judge’s boy, ain’t ya? Stay out of this, kid.”
He tossed me in the mud and I turned to see Toby struggling under the weight of the men holding him down. James Wilson stood over Toby and unsheathed a Bowie knife from his belt and the seven inch blade flashed like lightning.
My best friend, my brother, turned to me with a pleading look of pure love. “Get out of here, Stevie.”
I never forgot that look as I pedaled through the rain and the wind. I heard his scream as I crossed the edge of the cemetery. It still rang in my ears four miles later as I crashed through the front door of our nice warm house. “Steve, what’s wrong? You’re dripping all over the---“
“They’re killing Toby, Mama. We need to get help out to the cemetery. Where’s Daddy?”
“What?—Who?---Calm down, Son.“
My eyes darted to the closed double doors. Daddy was a powerful man, and I knew if anyone could help Toby it was the Judge. I pushed my way into his study, and, despite my panic and desperation, I explained what the Wilson boys were doing to Toby. My father leaned back in his chair, folded his hands across his chest, and stared at me in silence.
“We could get Sheriff Daniels out there to stop them.” I grabbed the phone on his desk and held it out to him. “Why are you just sitting there?”
My father shook his head and looked away. “He’s probably already dead, boy. I knew this day would come. How many times have I warned you about spending too much time with that darkie?”
I leaned over his desk. My words sprayed across his face. “What are you talking about? It’s Toby. You’re just afraid to go up against the Wilsons because they own this town. Do they own you, too, Daddy?”
I could have stopped at Sheriff Daniels’ office, but my newly acquired education told me Wilson had Daniels in his pocket, too.
I rolled into the cemetery and approached the oak tree. The men were gone. The girl was gone. At first I thought Toby had somehow gotten away—until I looked up. Toby was swaying from a branch of the tree by a rope noosed around his neck. His face was bloated and his eyes were bulging from their sockets. He was only a foot off the ground, but that foot was an abyss. The rain poured over his naked body and exposed gaping wounds from his head to his feet. His toes and fingers had been cut off. Just a few hours ago those fingers were drinking a Coke and placing a doomed bass back in the lake. He had dreams. He wanted to fight for his country. He did fight for that girl--he died for her. I walked over to Toby’s bike laying in the mud and opened the tackle box in the saddle-bag. I palmed the filet knife and climbed the slippery tree. I cut the rope and winced when my friend’s body hit the ground with a splat. I jumped out of the tree and landed next to him in the mud and the blood. I held his body and cried, helplessly, with a rage I’d never felt before. That rage turned to hatred—hatred for my father—hatred for the town.
Lightning flashed outside my hotel room bringing me back to the present. Tomorrow I’ll watch the Judge go into the ground, at the cemetery, under the old oak tree.