Black & White: Alabama, 1957--A short story 250gps per quality review
by: Nickolas Allen
I got a small job in Birmingham during the fall of 1957.
In those days—at that time—the good folk of Birmingham were preparing for a cold snap to come waltzing through the great state of Alabama. People were putting various articles of insulation around their outside water pipes, the pets were being brought indoors, and not a few drifters and vagabonds were burning shoe leather in the attempt to make it further south—looking for warmer climes—perhaps Florida, or maybe even Texas.
And, that’s exactly what I was in 1957: a rolling stone, a genuine roustabout. I came back from the war in Korea, and like so many of my buddies, I found it hard to get a job just any old place. Some of us settled down in a matter of good time, yet a lot of us kept creeping along the road for a number of years. It took me until 1959; but I ended up doing pretty well. I married in that year, bought a home in Michigan, and before I knew it I was an old man with four kids to my name, and nine grandchildren
But this story is not about George Lewis Dodd. No, it’s not about me—although the events that transpired were something I witnessed firsthand. I don’t even think that I would be writing this story if it were not for the trials that happened in the years following 1957: what happened in Birmingham and the Deep South during the 1960s: the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of a President, and, overseas, a war in Vietnam. This story is about a man with the interesting moniker, “Big Broken,” and how in some fantastical way (perhaps), he might have given life to a whole new generation—a generation that you would surely know now; but not back then. Because in 1957, some folks weren’t even human at all.
The Blue Star Linen and Supply Co. was situated in the rough neck of Birmingham, Alabama, called the Annalee District by the city developers, but dubbed “Low Town” by those less poetic and less fortunate. This is where the dregs lived: beggars, niggers, and the white-bread laborers that somehow trickled down from Birmingham’s upper crust. I washed in to town, sometime in late September ‘57, and let me tell you I snuggled right in to the neighborhood—and right into a job at the Blue Star.
Mr. Finley had owned the Blue Star since 1926. The bastard died and left the remnants to his son in 1964.
If ever there was a disagreeable fellow—one that reeked of his own self-defilement and shame—Mr. Jacob Finley was it. He hated his slovenly life; he hated the fact that the rest of Birmingham left him sucking hind tit in the ghetto; and he absolutely despised the colored man. Keeping the Old Crow whisky distillery in business, and sucking down sixty Chesterfields a day, old man Finley’s motor was just about dry of 40-weight. He gave me a job. He cussed a red, white, and blue streak. And he also gave Big Broken a job…and for that…I am forever thankful.
Finley kept the Blue Star running adequately (for a ramshackle outfit that had outworn its usefulness long ago)—kind of like Joe Louis, towards the end of his career. Although Joe didn’t quite pack the wallop he once did, still, a fellow wouldn’t go around picking a fight with him just because they could see his wobbly knees.
The Blue Star still retained some quality contracts, during the late fifties. The chiefest of these being the linen bid that Finley won from St. Mark’s Hospital, on Ellis Avenue.
Every Sunday, at 5:30 AM, Thomas Wilkes and I would make the drive down to St. Mark’s to pick up their dirty laundry—stacking it in great white bags in the back of the beat up company wagon.
When we returned from our run, my job was to operate the linen press.
And boy how I remember the press.
You would yank down on the crank, real hard, and sear flat a dozen or so sheets at a time. Starch jets would pelt the fabric, and the result was an almost razor-thin board of cotton that would sound like a sack of snakes if you peeled it apart.
As for the Blue Star Linen and Supply Co., itself: it was a huge facility. Its innards were made of heavy-lunged machinery, hearts of steel, and veins that carried billows of steam to various stations around the plant. Here you’d find mammoth vats for soaking the most soiled sheets and pillowcases; there—in the center of the room—was the large wringer, used to bleed off excess water before the laundry reached the press. Every piece of equipment seemed to be fashioned in Herculean proportions; everything painted the dull gray of all work and no play.
By the time the linen got to my station, the alchemy of turning shit into gold was almost complete. The product arrived putrid, but it came out of the Blue Star like magic—as white as cherry blossoms, as crisp as new saltines. For, that’s what we were: magicians! We were the underworld magicians of underwear and bloody smocks.
Cecil didn’t mind that his business was taking the linen out of the bags and sorting them in large, wheeled, laundry bins. He would spill out the hospital bags on a sorting table (diapers in bin #8, robes in #4, etc.), and more often then not he would fish out some sort of gadgetry a lazy intern didn’t remove from the laundry list: hypodermic needles, used catheters, bent scalpel blades. It wasn’t uncommon, during Cecil’s shift, to hear him hollering over the din of machines humming and clanking—men grunting and whistling: “Goddamnit! It bit me!” Cecil would be seen grinning, shamefaced, and holding up a punctured hand with a syringe flopping from it like an old war trophy. He was a nervous, but jovial, young man that took his lumps with the rest of our lot.
It was part of the job.
And then there was Thomas Wilkes—my aforementioned riding buddy to St. Mark’s (although I use the word “buddy,” lightly; for, though we spent many shifts together, we were anything but friends). Thomas stewed around with the soaking vats, which was a job that was quite suited towards his natural disposition—a smelly, rotten, match made in perdition. All day long Thom stirred the vat with a long, bleached, wooden pole—an old axe or broom handle. He never gagged and retched like the rest of us at the stench coming off the water; he merely leaned into his work, with a clenched cigar between his teeth, cursing the “pantywaists,” and “sombitchin faggots” for not liking the smell of his brew. “God damn bunch of niggers,” he would mumble.
Thom’s job was to get the undesirables out of the linen before they moved on down the line: fecal matter, vomit, blood clots, urine—just to name a few things that went into the soup. And, every 10 minutes or so, Thom would douse the vats with a liquid bactericide and detergent, which the fellows named, “Wilkes’s Wonder Juice.”
That was Thomas. Older than most of us by twenty years or so, Thom Wilkes didn’t give a coyote’s ass about anything.
Now there was a fairly good-sized lunch office at the Blue Star.
Come two blows of the whistle, and the boys would drop their labor—right on the floor if they had to—and kind of walk-jog into the lunchroom, with their thermoses and sandwich bags in tow. We ate like sick cannibals—waterfalling sweat into in our food, bones aching in the bottom of our feet, and it didn’t matter if all you had was a red potato, or a roast beef hoagie, you ate that food like it was manna from Heaven: hungry, greedy, and very thankful.
We ate in silence, mostly:
Pumping fuel into his own blast furnace, each man was too preoccupied to say much of anything. We had it down to a science; but every so often someone would find the time to tell a joke or two in between taking stabs at his mouth. A guy named Sid was especially fond of telling negro jokes.
“Say, boys? If a little white baby dies and goes to heaven, they call him an ‘angel,’ don’t they? And, if a little nigger baby dies, don’t that mean that they call him a ‘bat’ when he gets to there?”
Har. Har. Yuck. Yuck.
Presently, someone else would pipe up and say something along the lines of: “Naw! Hell no! They don’t let niggers into heaven unless it’s to shine shoes, or swab down tar.”
Some would laugh, while others merely kept on chewing. The kid, Cecil, did a little bit of both. But the strange thing was; nobody seemed to pay much attention to the half dozen negro men who sat in the far right corner of the room. I have to admit that I didn’t bother taking notice of them myself, until I realized that one of them always sat by himself—separated even from his own crowd.
The lunch office contained rows of benches that held 2 or 3 men to a plank. What the benches really looked like were yellow painted picnic tables, completely out of their likely location. The ceiling was high, the floor was tinted a scuffed rust color, and the walls were bare concrete, unornamented, save for an old billboard advertising Dr. Pepper. It was cramped and stuffy, but a far sight better than the factory floor. The blacks sat on bench number 9 from the lunch office entrance. But, on bench-the-last, sat the other man: that singular negro, nibbling quietly by the percolator.
I had been employed at the Blue Star less then a week before I asked Cecil about the colored man who ate alone.
“Hey Cecil?” I whispered.
“Huh?” Cecil was munching a grapefruit with his canines.
“What do they call that ol’ boy sitting over yonder, by himself?”
Cecil craned his neck and looked over his shoulder. The object of conversation was stowing his trash away in his lunch pail, looking about as beat as the rest of us.
Picking his teeth, Cecil turned back to me and said offhandedly: “Oh, that’s Big Broken.”
He didn’t look all that big. A matter of fact, he was pretty much kissing the skinny side of the fence. And, neither did he look at all broken. In spite of his weight, one could see hard ripples of muscle beneath his stiff hide. His eyes were yellowed, and saggy in the lid department; his hands were mitts that looked a little large for his arms—like marshmallows on campfire sticks. He wasn’t very old (you could tell he was maybe thirty-five or so), despite the fact that the wrinkles on his skin made canyon-like fissures on his face. And while most of the negroes were the deep brown of melted chocolate, Big Broken’s skin was as dark as shade; what Finley would call a “genuine Mandingo.”
I distinctly recall sitting there that day wondering how to address the man. Would you say: “Hello Big; how are you?” Or perhaps: “Nice day, isn’t it, Mr. Broken?”
I found out later that his real name was James Mayweather. However, I never called him such.
Thom Wilkes leaned over and said to me: “I see him there, chieftain. Don’t you go payin’ attention to that porch monkey, boy—don’t pay attention to any of ‘em. Hell, that Sambo won’t say a word to anybody, no how. You follow?”
I nodded yes.
But a few days later I had a dream. And that dream changed everything.
Every other weekend we worked a team of five men on a nightshift. The object—according to Mr. Finley—was to complete our newest batch of linen on Sunday, and have the laundry still lukewarm when it arrived at the hospital the following morning.
On one such occasion, after pulling an “all-nighter,” and working the next day to boot, I arrived at my little shanty, on Griggs St, so exhausted that I fell asleep in the rocker next to my bed.
And, there I dreamed a dream, so stupid and murderous. Alone, in my head, but somehow shifting the world.
I was back home in Kentucky, sitting at the counter of Wally’s Diner, and facing a big slab of lemon meringue pie. There were a few chunks taken out of its gooey filling, and like any dream that feels so real, I could taste the tartness in the back of my throat.
I used to love going to Wally’s after work, or on my lunch breaks, or sometimes Sunday nights after mother and I came back from church meetings. Janine (or often Sally) would be working behind the counter. Jim Ladle might be sitting in his customary booth by the jukebox. And in the kitchen, Earl would be frying up some eggs or hash—flipping a greasy spatula around with one hand, and reading a dime-store novel with the other. As soon as you walked in the place, you could smell the coffee brewing and the cholesterol clogging—arteries bottlenecking—
But don’t get me wrong—the eats were divine!
Now sitting in my dream version of Wally’s, I got the niggling feeling that something was about to happen. Something that took place many years before I went to work at the Blue Star—many years prior to joining the Army, in fact…and yet here I was as an adult: not the pimply-faced teenager I had been back in Owensboro that day.
I looked down at my pie. Yes, the pie was the same—1945. Janine was behind the counter, giving Jerry Farmstead a glass of milk and gossiping about how Gladys Heimerdinger was separating from her husband Arnold.
My God, that was the same too.
In a minute “April In Paris” would sound through the jukebox.
Was I correct?
Click. Hissssssss. The needle hit the record, and music began to chime throughout the diner as my head began to swim. I pushed the plate away from me, feeling ill, as if the pie were alive and wriggling. Sick to my stomach.
I knew what was about to happen. I knew every damned bit of it, because I had been there before.
Bingo! The Wilson’s walked through the door and Janine said hi. The same. Earl looked out from the kitchen window to see who it was, and coughed. The same. The Wilson’s took a booth and sat down; little Sammy Wilson was grinning mischievously at me—minus one lucky eyetooth. Even that little shit-eating kid was the same.
And I thought frantically:
OK, I need to see if Claude Leeland is in the colored section, fast. I need to see if he’s there. Fast! Because if Claude isn’t there then I know what’s going to happen and I don’t want to be a part of any of this… Claude has to be there, I must be wrong, this is the wrong day. Please let it be the wrong day, the wrong time.
I walked tentatively towards the colored section, the negro section of Wally’s in Owensboro, Kentucky. The hairs on my arm spiked in gooseflesh.
Even though I knew it was a dream, and although my senses felt as dull as lead—as unreliable as a carload of liars; nevertheless, I still needed to see if Claude Leeland had taken a booth in there. If he wasn’t there, it was a repeat nightmare. But if he was sitting down, sipping coffee, or whatever…well, I suppose that would fall under the classification of déjà vu in reverse: a pleasant ending for once.
And lo and behold: that’s where he was, lounging in the third booth and jawing with Turner King. Claude didn’t see me at first, but oh man, let me tell you—even in a dream state—I could feel the hot air rush out of my lungs in a long hoarse sigh (while an uptake of fresh oxygen made me feel a tad lightheaded, but good).
I then waved a dream hand at Claude and, with a smile that said friendly all day, he waved a dream hand back. And as I turned, I told myself to simply let this dream play itself out; just go on back and finish my slice of dream-pie, and in a few hours (or minutes) I would be awake, sipping the sludge that masqueraded as java at the ol’ Blue Star. Birmingham. Alabama.
However, a certain Mr. Sandman had other plans in mind.
With a crash, a man flew against Wally’s big double doors, and into the diner. He sprawled on the floor and scooted a few feet on the blue and white checkered linoleum. Janine let out a shocked screech; a dish broke somewhere in the back, and Mr. Wilson stood up as quick as mercury to see what was happening.
“Goddamn, Nigger piece o’ shit,” someone yelled from outside the diner (I knew who it was). The man on the floor simply balled himself up in fetal position, blood oozing from the back of his skull and down his neck.
Bang! Willie Haglin and John Walsh flew into the room, each with a Louisville slugger at the end of his arm.
Willie was also wielding a thick steel chain.
Involuntarily I took a step toward the counter, my spine sticking hard to the thin rail that ran along it. …the wrong day the wrong time…
John Walsh hovered over the grounded man—his face looking animalistic and full of rage—teeth bared like a jackal: “Thought you could get away with it, didn’t you nigger son? Thought you could fool us, ya goddamn go-rilla!”
“What are you doing?” Janine yelled, tears streaking down her face. “What are you guys doing?”
Willie slammed a fist down on the counter, sending Janine cringing backwards. “Shut up, Janine goody-goody! This ain’t none of your damn business!”
At once Mr. Wilson scrambled out of his booth: “Willie! John! What’s going on here? Is this the man that ran over Baxter?”
The man on the ground was a negro; but I couldn’t see his face because his back was towards me.
“Yes sir, Mr. Wilson,” Willie said. “We caught this Bo-jangles with blood on the hood of his car and his bumper. Out by the crick, he was! Lyin’ bastard said it was chicken blood!” And with that Willie gave the man a sharp kick in the ribs.
“Yeah…” Enthusiastically, John Walsh was about to say something, but Mr. Wilson held up a silencing hand.
“Well, boys, you know what we do with murdering niggers now don’t you?” Wilson signaled, as calm as anything.
With a hoot and holler, John and Willie, grabbed the man up, in unison, and pulled the poor wretch outside. The two boys were smiling from ear to ear—having a country-good-time—while the negro remained ever silent.
As if it were business as usual, Mr. Wilson followed the trio outside, leaving his wife and son without a word. His lower jaw set like the prow of an ocean liner.
…the wrong time…
I looked at Janine, and she was sobbing. Placing a hand on her shoulder—I was about to leave—
…the wrong place…
…when a voice came from behind me:
“Don’t you know, George?”
I turned around swiftly, and it was Claude Leeland: the real victim of the episode that transpired in 1945. He was standing with his head bowed, kneading his hat in his hands. Earl, the cook, was standing beside him, a store mannequin’s blankness on his face.
“Don’t you know that God takes care of all the sparrows of the field, Georgie?”
I felt like crying at the sight of his long dead visage. But no...
Instead, I turned and raced out the door.
I found that we were now magically transported (something that only dreams can do) a few miles outside of town, by state farm road 88. It wasn't real this time, yet the weight of the sun still felt persecuting to my skin—the outdoors being an oven with cooked turkeys in its belly. A copse of cottonwood trees and a tire-swing being the first things that I saw; and then…
“Now, nigger, you listen here.” Mr. Wilson was speaking to his captive. “Baxter was my prized basset: a real grand hound, he was; and you ran him down.” His voice was growing louder with each word. “And you killed him, in cold blood you killed him, you piss-poor soulless monkey-meat!”
Silence from the prisoner.
Willie and John Walsh had already rigged a noose around the negro’s neck by the time I made it to the trees. At the instructions of Mr. Wilson, they had the man standing on the back of Willie’s pickup bed—ready to drive off and leave the man dangling with his feet at the border of hell.
But all I could do was stand aside and watch. It was a nightmare where I was forced to view the same scene over and over again. Over and over.
However, this time the victim was another man.
It was Big Broken. There he stood—as large as Alaska—with the rope tight around his neck—in a place that was not his own, yet just as available as Claude Leeland had been. Except Claude had begged and pleaded for his life. Claude offered Mr. Wilson money for the death of his confounded dog. Yet, Big Broken was a different animal all together.
“Shit, Mr. Wilson, that nigger ain’t gonna say spit!” Willie was in the driver’s seat of the truck, leaning out of the window, already revving the gas. “Let me drive off and get him now, will ya?”
John Walsh was giggling like an idiot, by the tree.
“Would you shut your trap, Willie,” Mr. Wilson spat, as he stepped closer to Big Broken.
In a low voice (I could barely hear him), Mr. Wilson winked at the Negro: “You have nothing to say, fella? Nothing to say before you meet Jesus?”
He was scanning Big Broken’s face, and for a second Wilson almost looked compassionate—sorrowful for what he was about to do.
Big Broken’s eyes merely stared straight ahead.
“No?” Mr. Wilson said, his face now twisted in disgust. “Then you need to send us a postcard from the great jubilee in the sky, now don’t you, Quimbo?”
With one arm raised, as if he were going to strike the hostage in the jowls, Wilson stepped back; but instead of hitting the man, his arm sliced only humid air.
“Let her rip, Willie!”
The engine gunned one final time, and for a brief moment in time, our eyes locked, Big Broken and I, like the black and white of yin & yang.
A small smile creased at the corners of his mouth, as we gazed at each other. But in a whirlwind of dirt and summer grass…
…The dream was over.
I awoke in my shanty and watched the morning sunrise play shadow games in the alley through one smudged windowpane. In an hour I would be working the press, back at the Blue Star. Day in. Day out. Exhausted from the load of my labor.
Dressing as quickly as possible—trying to forget the sensation of inner struggle and contorted dreams—I got myself ready for work.
Even though I was feeling better by the time I made it to the Blue Star, I couldn’t help but wonder…I could have thought of a million things that morning, but I didn’t…I wondered one thing, and one thing only:
If God were a sparrow…
If God were a sparrow.
…Who would take care of him?
During the months that followed, I made it my purpose to find out as much about Big Broken as I could.
The weather was much colder now—I think it was November—and Cecil was removing his jacket, placing it in the coat closet at the Blue Star. He shook his head with wonder, chuckling slightly:
“I don’t know, Georgie. Why do you want to know about that nigger anyhow?”
Replying offhandedly, I shrugged: “I’m just curious, that’s all.”
Cecil smiled: “My mammy always said that ‘curiosity killed the cat,’ Georgie ol’ boy.”
“Is that a fact?”
“That’s a fact.”
Out of all the employees that worked at the Blue Star Linen, Cecil was my regular favorite. He was a good kid. No…a great kid. But, his only problem was knowing right from wrong.
“Well, they call him ‘Big Broken’…” Cecil began, leaning on the wall, arms crossed. “…Because of his poor kid. A son! Feeble little beggar; I saw him once, and I swear he looked like one of them circus freaks that you pay admission to see.”
“What the hell’s wrong with the kid, Cecil?”
“I don’t know. You got me. They call the kid ‘the little broken boy’ on account of him looking all busted up and such. Probably incest, is my best guess. And I suppose…maybe…the boys around here got to calling his old man Big Broken because there was a ‘Little Broken’ on the loose. Ya reckon?”
As it happened, I saw the young man, Little Broken, about a week later, while having a smoke at the receiving dock.
Something at the sight of the child made me think of my dream. My heart sank to the bottom of my soul; and again, I had the premonition of a strange beautiful phenomenon sprouting wings on the horizon.
Little Broken was walking with a white lady down Brady Ave.
The young woman must have been a social worker, or something of that persuasion, for you never really saw coloreds and whites mingling on street corners in ’57. She had the child by an arm, and was leading him casually over cracks in the sidewalk and around intermittent fire hydrants.
Big Broken’s son was quite a figure of perverse injustice.
His legs were buckled at the knees, as if some alien force was pushing the outsides of his legs together—like two Vs touching at the points; it made him walk in an odd, duck-like fashion: jerky and mechanical—recalling the machine that his father operated every day: The Wringer.
The child’s eyes gazed steadily at the clouds; his face a mask of simplemindedness, with a smile the size of a large orange wedge: teeth glittering in the sunlight—hands balled up in knots on his chest, in constant contact with the rhythm of his heart.
Maybe he was happy. I can’t say that he looked particularly sad. Regardless, I would like to think that he wasn’t aware of his differences; but I knew better from the moment I laid eyes on him. In some ridiculous way he was very conscious of his abnormalities. Moreover, he seemed to shoulder his burden with awful pleasure. His eyes danced with joy from tree to tree—squinting at the sun’s rays—marvelling at everything in nature equally.
There remained an almost frightening quality about the boy that I couldn’t quite glue my thoughts to.
“Would ya look at that?” Peter Flynn was standing behind me, watching the same parade as I was.
“Pretty sad.” I said, not looking around.
“Yup. I just can’t imagine why God would let a little toad like that live in so much misery.”
I thought about that for a second. A pause. But, before I could say anything indifferent—before I could collect my thoughts, proper; I turned to Peter and thought out loud:
“Maybe to teach us a lesson, huh Peter?…maybe to teach us all a little lesson?”
The two of us remained quiet for a few minutes, until the whistle blew inside the Blue Star—startling us, and making us both nerve-up.
We laughed at our edginess.
“Come on, George. Let’s get inside before old man Finley has both of our hides!”
Peter was holding the door open for me. I looked back down the street; but the little negro boy and his white companion, were already gone—probably headed down Glen Springs Ave.
I wouldn’t see Little Broken again until the great snowstorm of Christmas Eve.
“Ya know something, George?” Peter said to me, as we walked to our workstations. “You’re probably right, you know that?”
“Right about what, Pete?”
“Maybe we could all use a few lessons from time to time.”
I don’t imagine that Thomas Wilkes knew what he was doing when he picked a fight with Big Broken. I have always thought that fighters were not the opposite of lovers, but instead, a perfect representation of their own hollow selves—folks in need of something to reach out for—not something to push against. Perhaps, he thought that he was merely puffing up his manhood, or flaunting his seniority at the plant. Nevertheless, what Thomas ended up doing—in some cryptic way—was ushering in the events that challenged all of our lives: what the residents of Birmingham would later call “The Great Blizzard of 1957.” But, it wasn’t merely a snowstorm. It was the turning of the last page. The erasing of all things before it. Yet, for all its magnificence and horror, I would give a sheikh’s ransom to be there for a second time, to witness what I witnessed, and to walk again, with Big Broken, Thomas Wilkes, Peter Flynn and Henry Carmichael into a bold new dawn for everyone.
I had a dream. But somebody out there had one greater.
Christmas Eve, 1957.
It was another nightshift at the Blue Star. Five of us were leaning over a long rectangular table: folding, bundling, packing. Cut enough length of twine, collect only eight sheets to a bunch, laugh a bit, smoke some, talk about dames; don’t even think about Christmas Eve, and for God’s sake don’t believe in Santa Claus, or overtime.
The evening was new and candy-sweet—as light as down on a puff of breeze. Even Thomas had some bounce in his step, as he waltzed in humming “April in Paris” and gifting out packs of Pall Mall.
“…I never knew my heart could sing…
…I never missed a warm embrace.”
When they plant me in the thorny ground, and if I make it to the gates of pearl, they might ask me if my heart did sing…and I’ll just ask them if they ever worked at the Blue Star.
Dinner is served.
If we had been outside, we would have been chiselling our teeth through frozen chow instead of eating it warm. It was a few degrees below frostbite, and just as the weatherman predicted, it was best to stay indoors. No snow, but plenty of icy roads.
Thank God for overheated machinery.
“I’m about as parched as the friggin’ Sahara, boys.” Thomas belched. “Drank all my damned water.”
“No foolin’, Thom?”
A few sniggers. Sometimes we poked fun at Thom because he was too ignorant to know just who was laughing at whom.
“Yeah! Hell yeah, I am.” Thomas had completely relinquished his previously cheery mood, and something in his eyes had grown a trace darker. He was scanning everybody’s faces; and we knew that there would be trouble in Cow Town. “Maybe I should go get some water, huh fellas?”
“Sure, Thom.” Peter said—you could see him grasping for something optimistic to latch on to. “There ain’t no one gonna dock you here. Finley’s probably three sheets to the wind by now—or at home under a mountain of Blue Star Linen, huh? That ol’ skinflint!”
“You think, Pete?” Thomas said. “Hang that old bastard, any how! But how about this nigger here going to get me some water?”
Thomas was pointing at Big Broken, his finger making little circles in the air, as the room grew tension thick.
“Say, how ‘bout it Cheetah? Wanna go fetch master some wa-wa?”
Folding, folding, folding, fold…
I sucked in a breath.
“Are you deaf as well as dumb, boy? Don’t you hear me talkin’ at you?”
Folding, folding, fold…
Three of us—Henry, Peter Flynn and I—were as still as brickbats. I must have been clenching my fists, for dull pains were radiating around my wrists. And the straps that held my jaws together were taut and aching.
“I’ll be goddamned if I’m gonna let you be a little-mister-clam-I-don’t-say-nothing-‘cos-I’m-an-orangutan-nigger, any more! You understand me?”
Thomas looked like a Halloween goblin—gradually creeping up, step by step, on the quiet negro worker. Big Broken was obviously trying to ignore him, folding away, sheet after sheet. His working pace had increased a good deal; he seemed to be folding in sync with the pulse hammering away in my inner ear.
“If you don’t say something, boy, I’m gonna kill me a nigger, that’s for sure!”
“You son-of-a- BITCH!”
Smashing down with all his strength, right at the shoulder blade, Thomas smote Big Broken into a flaccid heap on the ground.
And before you could say Johnny Quick, Thomas too was laid out on the factory floor; his head hit the wringer with a clang that either represented his vacant noggin, or the emptiness of the great machine. I didn’t realize what I had done, but I had lashed out and belted Thomas just as he had done Big Broken, the second before.
Reflex and action.
I was a torn person inside, and I had words for Thomas Wilkes—and any other fellow who would dare rise up against me on Christmas Eve.
That was it! I was tired and didn’t even know it.
“No, Thomas you stay down!” He was trying to get up, but he didn’t need me to tell him to keep put. Thom’s efforts were useless from the drumming he took. He was milquetoast.
Big Broken, eyes wide, had his back propped against a vat, staring at me, while the other boys seemed as if they were a million miles away.
“Now you listen here, ya son of a bitch!” I hollered at Thomas. “You listen! And you listen good—better then you ever have in your whole goddamn life! If this man here don’t wanna say shit to you—or anybody else—then he don’t have to say nothin’! Ya got that? Who the hell you think you are? Dwight goddamn Eisenhower? So I swear, if I ever see you mistreating, or conducting yourself in an unwholesome manner towards anybody on this planet: black, white, purple, or pewter, I promise you, goddamit, that I will put my foot so far up your ass that you will be tasting boot leather for a damned week! You got that through your thick head, Thomas? Ya got that? Now do you got that?”
“Yes,” Thomas said in weak voice.
“Yes! Damn you! Yes! I was only foolin’ until he didn’t…”
“He don’t have to! That’s the friggin’ point, Wilkes! He could be as dumb as mule turds as far as we can tell, and you had to haul off and hit him! That’s my point! And that’s all that I’m sayin’. I don’t care who he is; you didn’t have to sock the man, ya dimwit!”
In disgust, I turned away from Thomas before I could let loose another string of missiles, stomping towards the other side of the room.
Henry walked over and helped Thomas get up, while Peter went for Big Broken. Big Broken was already standing, however, looking up at the large factory windows.
The windows went all the way around the Blue Star—on most occasions allowing for sunbeams to light the plant; but this time the view outside was solid white and moving. All of us craned our necks to see what Big Broken was gawking at; and we were mystified.
“Jesus, Mother Mary and Joseph,” Henry said. “If I didn’t know better boys, I’d say it’s snowing outside.”
I didn’t want to play the heavy with Thomas, but I knew I had to. It’s not that I cared so much about Big Broken, or his family…or anybody else at the Blue Star for that matter. I wasn’t gunning for lawbreakers, and I never acted like a Gene Autry in my life. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is, sometimes a feeling can come boiling up in a man so strong—so powerful and overbearing—that a thousand ships couldn’t pull him to shore. And that’s how I felt inside: big, angry, and maybe even a little broken.
Thomas had resigned himself to a chair by the lunch office—looking as sheepish as one could get, like a certain Miss Bo-Peep that had lost something precious. Big Broken was barely working. He was transfixed on the sheets of snow racing across the windows.
As for the rest of the clan, Henry, Peter, and I, we were playing cards on the folding table—feeling nervous (and perhaps a tad claustrophobic).
About ten minutes before, Peter had stated the obvious. “Ya know something guys? If it keeps snowing like this we’re gonna get snowed in for sure. You realize that don’t you?”
I nodded, and so did Henry. We knew it was true. The snow was blowing too fast and hard for it to be a lie. We knew it, but we didn’t want to believe it.
“And if we get snowed in, there ain’t no tellin’ when we’ll get out again. Maybe by noon tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” Henry tried to grin, “I guess this is what they mean by ‘a snowball’s chance in Hell,’ ya reckon?”
When he’d finished checking the phone line, Thomas came back and told us that the line was dead—so calling out was nixed. He also took a peek outside the door to see how bad it was. It was pretty bad.
Thirty minutes later Pete opened the door and would’ve been blown to the floor if it weren’t for his grip on the doorjamb. The snow was piling up around the entrance, waist-high, and the wind had every bit of the effect of an A-bomb test in Nevada—the ones they would show in newsreels before the main attraction.
…And fifteen minutes after that, the snow was up to a man’s chest, and we were scared.
We hadn’t hit a lick of work in over an hour. Even Big Broken had stopped folding and tying. He was sitting in the middle of the floor eating some cheese that was wrapped in wax paper. The group of us—all but Thomas—had gathered whatever we could find: lanterns, candles: anything to provide light, for that’s what we expected next—the lights to go out—but thank God we wouldn’t freeze to death. We might be a little hungry by the time we got out of there, but the Blue Star was nice and toasty.
Thomas still sat alone, the polar opposite of Big Broken; and maybe just wanting to be forgotten. Miserable—because unlike the rest of us Thomas wore his fear right on the sleeve. I found myself feeling sorry for the poor sap. Hell, we were all a little disturbed, but Thomas looked like a frightened rat that would have gnawed through Pinocchio’s leg just to get out of the belly of the whale. I was about to tell him to come over and sit next to the warm machines, but a sudden thump on the door stopped my words from coming up the chute.
Nobody moved an inch at the sound. Yet, to a man, all eyes lolled towards the door—perhaps expecting something else to happen—but exactly what, I couldn’t tell you.
I can only take a few guesses as to what was running though everybody’s mind at that moment—especially when the second, and louder thump came at the door. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Thomas, standing now, across the room with a look of befuddlement on his face that probably mirrored what was plastered on the rest of our mugs. Yet the room was pretty much noiseless, except for the sound of a few chairs being repositioned to get a better look at what was still a door. Obviously, still a door! But on a night like this, it might as well have been pink elephants, or a marching band, or anything else ridiculous. Why the hell would anybody be out in a snowstorm?
And it’s almost silly how just a few seconds in time can freeze in mid-moment and drag into a phantom-state of future-now. But you can’t blame life for being life. A man’s hesitation, his timidity, often contradicts the saying that opportunity is supposed to knock only once. As a matter of fact, opportunity knocked three times that night; and as the thump on the door came for the last time, our whole team uprooted and dashed for the door in a mad commotion—our feet barely touching the ground.
I was the first who reached the door; yet it was Henry who turned the knob, exposing us to a gust of air that was frigid enough to turn your hair as white—…well…as white as snow, if the truth be told.
Before us was a solid wall of packed snow and ice that came up to our heads, and it looked as if you’d have to break it up with a pick-axe to get out. Of course, none of us knew it then, but the snow was never as deep outside as it looked to us on the inside. It was merely that the north wall of the factory was facing the lion’s share of the wind; and what we saw as a giant barricade of ice, was, in reality, merely a large snowdrift that had sidled up to the face of the building.
“Jeez-O-Pete!” Peter breathed in awe. But it wasn’t the snow he was gawking at. No, he was looking up, shivering (as we all were)—at the last bit of open sky that one could see above the ice wall. Over us was a two-foot expanse of swirling snow and stars, connecting the upper doorframe to the packed ice.
The astounding detail, however, was not the snow, or the sky, nor the fact that Big Broken had gotten so close to me that his hands were on my shoulders. The truly amazing sight was the tiny arm of a black child, coming out of the night, and into the Blue Star, which had caused Pete to come awfully close to blasphemy.
As far as our stupor went, that was it—it was broken in a swift turn of events that sent the room into a great wave of motion. Confused voices chimed in unison. Big Broken, first, and then Peter and I, quickly grabbed the child’s arms and began to pull. Great sheaves of snow began to fall into the room, blocking the door from closing. What should have been an easy task for three able men, however, became more like three gnats trying to pull a boxcar to Memphis. Not only did the small child seem many times too heavy to be a small child at all; but he was also as slippery as an eel in a 50-gallon drum of axle grease.
I found out why. Real soon.
Grabbing nothing but the skin about the child’s neck, I realized firstly that the black boy wasn’t wearing a shirt—he was entirely unclothed from the waist up, exposed to the blizzard—and secondly, that this was the same child I had witnessed strolling down Brady Avenue a month before. And thirdly, red-faced and out of breath, by the time we got to his legs, we recognized it wasn’t him alone, but another hand was wrapped around the boy’s ankle—heavy because we were hauling in two people instead of one!
“Holy shit!” Henry let out.
I reacted immediately by grabbing the hand that bound the boy’s leg. It was the arm and fist of a black woman.
“Thomas, get over here and lend Pete a hand; look at this!” I yelled over my shoulder.
Thomas ran up, all but screeching: “George, what in the hell’s going on here? What the hell’s goin’ on, James, goddamit?” Thomas sounded on the verge of panic, and…
…James? I wanted to ask Thomas who James was, but I simply didn’t have the time.
The snow was almost chest-high by now, and I was able to hook an arm under the negro woman’s breasts and pull her about halfway through. Big Broken came over and assisted me, getting her the rest of the way down and laying her on the floor—still attached to the boy.
Getting the woman’s grip off the boy’s ankle was another difficult task; and I thought I had just about busted one of her fingers in the process. The last finger made an audible pop that caused a gross sensation to run through my gullet, while Big Broken grimaced as if he too had felt the pain (and perhaps he did, at that).
As Peter started organizing the party, dragging the boy off, and giving him over to Henry’s care, I stood there as dumb as a rock, gawking at the woman.
She was laying sideways, unconscious, in nothing but a light gossamer garment that appeared to be a nightdress. White powder was sitting evenly over her body, the contrast being stark against her molasses-toned skin; and if I suddenly had the image of an angel who had somehow fallen to earth, who would have blamed me? Certainly not Big Broken. Big Broken was gently rolling her over, a look of love, endearment and fear so deeply written on his face that I realized this must be the Mrs. Big Broken. A misnomer, no doubt, for she was such a vision of pure beauty that a man could scarcely behold her. It was then that I knew exactly how Moses must have felt gazing at the burning bush. …And I wondered how a man like Big Broken could have managed to land such a gem as she. A perfect specimen. What’s more, to produce an irregularity like Little Broken?
…The little broken boy…
Sitting a ways off to the side, Henry had the black boy wrapped up in some hot linen, cradling him like an infant, the strangest expression on Henry’s face. Little Broken, the son of the one and only big man, himself, wore the same slap-happy smile on his face as the first time I’d seen him; yet this time the child’s eyes were so far rolled up in his head that you would’ve thought he’d left his pupils out in the snow.
“What are we going to do?” The words barely squeaked out of my throat in a whisper.
“What?” Thomas was examining the woman from a distance—her legs and arms akimbo—as if he were looking at a bug under a microscope. Shooting me the expression of an exasperated schoolmarm. “George, this woman is about to have a baby!”
“How do you know she’s about to have a baby, Wilkes?”
“Well, for one thing,” Thomas tittered, “her belly is about the size of Mount Saint Helen, George, and another—“
Henry cut in, “—I think the boy’s trying to say something, guys…”
But nobody paid any attention to Henry. Like Jekyll to Hyde, Thomas about-faced and wheeled toward Big Broken: “Hey you, James! —“
“You better not start up again, Wilkes,” Peter warned him.
“No, no…listen to me…shut up Pete!” Thomas spat. Again to Big Broken (whom I had now figured out was James): “How come your wife and kid were out in that snow, can you at least tell us that, at least? I mean, just sitting there ain’t—“
“—I think that’s what the boy is trying to say, Thom.” Henry pleaded. “That he carried his mother through the snow just to get her here. To us! At least I think so…Christ!”
“Well, don’t that beat all!” Thomas threw his hands up. “You see that pool of pink snot between that woman’s legs? Everybody! That there is amniotic fluid; and that means she’s about to give birth to this baby right goddamn now! Right here!”
You could’ve heard a wasp fart in the silence that followed. Presently I spoke up. “I mean, how can you be so sure about that, Thomas? After all she is unconscious and—“
“—That’s because he was a medic in the army,” Peter said softly, not even raising his face.
“Shut your pie-hole, Pete!” Thomas exploded.
“George, it’s true.” Pete said to me, looking up now. “He was a medic. And how come you don’t want them to know that, Wilkes?”
“Because, you son-of-a-bitch, this is different, that’s why! I know what you want me to do Peter Flynn, and well…I’m just not having it, and that’s all!”
“And why the hell not, Wilkes?” I said.
“Because I don’t know how!”
“But you recognized what was happening!”
“Yeah, but I just don’t know how to do it, George, Okay? The difference between a sucking chest-wound, and a baby is just night and day. That’s what I’m saying—“
“—But if anyone in here could do it, it would be you right?” It was Henry providing the voice of reason. Without even realizing it, he was softly soothing the little boy’s head with a gentle hand.
“Yes!” I came back at him.
…And it went around like this for a few more moments…until the smallest voice in the room rolled in like the most trifling plankton being carried under a breaker—colliding with the shore…
I felt my eyes close slowly; only to open again after my body had made the complete semi-circle to face him.
Nobody said a word…but the silent black man was silent no more.
“Help Me.” Big Broken had said.
I held one of her arms, while Big Broken held the other. Pete was restraining her head, after taking his belt out of his pants and putting it in the woman’s mouth to stop her from biting her tongue. For some unknown reason, maybe a case of hypothermia, or perhaps something she was born with, the woman had started to convulse—prompting the only words I had ever heard Big Broken say.
You should have seen his eyes, floating in a sea of abandoned teardrops—darting back and forth—from Henry, to Peter, to Thomas, to me. And if this were a race—to get the convulsing woman under control—our previous dash to get Little Broken out of the blizzard would’ve seemed like turtles scaling skyscrapers. She wasn’t having a total fit; nonetheless, I don’t think any of us wanted to see what it was like to deliver a baby in full motion.
Thomas was hunkered down, his hands between the woman’s legs, looking to catch a fastball, it appeared—biting his lower lip, never quite coming across as a study in patience.
I don't know, maybe it was completely unfair to ask Thomas to deliver a baby on the fly like that. I’m not sure there was any choice in the matter. In retrospect, it seems that yes, he was precisely the man for the job; yet he was, without a doubt, the most unlikeliest doctor on Christmas Eve, or any other day, for that matter.
Presently, Thomas spoke up: “Look fellas, this woman ain’t pushing a pound.” He wiped the sweat (and fear) off his brow with his shirtsleeve. “If she don’t push, there’s no baby, as sure as shit; so…what I need you to do George…is ummm…just pin her arm down with your leg and push forward on her stomach, Okay?”
I nodded in ascent, and positioned myself the way he asked…
“No, no, no, George…with your palms flat, as you push; otherwise you’ll hurt the baby.”
Again, I nodded, and did just that, feeling small living movements under my hands.
By this time Big Broken’s wife was pretty still: her slight muscular contractions had slowed down a great deal; and I almost thought she was dead, if it were not for her steady breathing. The rest was silent work; which was a good thing, until…
“Okay, okay, okay okay, guys, I can see the baby’s head! Now, Pete, when I tell you, pull out your pocketknife and hand it to me when I say. George, after this baby comes out, I’m going to need you to push real hard like, down on her stomach to get the rest of the shit out of her. James…?”
Big Broken stared at Thomas with what seemed like an air of pure adoration.
“…James, I’m going to need you to get a length of twine from the folding table; you understand?”
He simply nodded, yes.
“Now…” Thomas flashed us all a paradoxical grin: half uncomfortable and half triumphant. “Here comes the baby. You ready, men?”
It wasn't really a question, and not really a choice.
“What’s going on over there?” Henry was coming unglued.
“You just shut up.” Thomas said, under his breath. “Here we go! Now push, George, push!
And I pushed down and forward, which seemed liked the most logical way to do it, until I felt something give. Down and forward.
“Alright, alright, here it is. Here it comes, now!” Thomas scooted a few inches on his heels. “This is it!”
It was a precious high-energy sound that sent chills down my arms, and a sizeable smile across Big Broken’s countenance. My God, how my breath caught in my chest, when the baby let out its first lusty cry.
Thomas looked up: “Peter, quick, the knife!”
Peter hurriedly gave Thom the knife and almost dropped it on the woman’s chest. Thomas caught it between his knuckles, and with a simple flick of the wrist, he deftly unfolded the small blade, making a short swipe at the thick cord that had attached the baby to its mother, cutting it in two.
“James, the string!”
Jumping up, Big Broken grabbed a good length from off the folding table, which was merely a step and a half away. When he handed the string to Thom, Thomas tied the severed cord to prevent the bleeding.
As for me, I didn’t even have to be asked to push the rest of the afterbirth out. I just figured that if the umbilical cord had been affixed to both the baby and the mother, then there was something still inside Big Broken’s wife that had to come out. Sure as the world, my efforts produced one of the most disgusting globs of sinewy, vein-clustered, sacs that I’d ever witnessed. Despite the scene, however, just the sound of the newborn baby’s cry was enough for me to forget just about anything disgusting, or otherwise.
12:02 A.M. Christmas Day
The beautiful black woman lay on the hardwood floor, sweat-beaded, and sleeping as sweetly as a storybook princess. Her husband, coolly blowing her forehead, and lightly stroking her cheek. Pete Flynn was on his back as well, hands crossed on his chest, and simply looking up at the tall ceiling. And George? I was transfixed at Thomas holding the new baby boy in one arm, as he smiled and caressed the baby’s nose with a calloused finger.
What Henry didn’t realize, however—what none of us found out until a good time later—was that Little Broken had silently died, during the birth of his baby brother, on Christmas Eve...Birmingham, Alabama...
We never knew exactly when it happened, for Henry kept on stroking the dead boy’s curly hair, well after God had taken him on. It turned out to be hypothermia. The blizzard had snatched up an undersized boy like Little Broken, without so much as lifting a finger. How long he would have lived with his polio, if he had not braved the Blizzard of 1957, well…I guess we’ll never know that either. Notwithstanding, very few men could aspire to Little Broken's sense of unconditional sacrifice. I suppose one could say, without too much exaggeration, that it was his giant gift to such a miniscule world.
His name was Benjamin.
But for the present moment, all was silent night, holy night, as I surveyed the Blue Star Linen & Supply Co., along with all its inhabitants—dead machinery, and living souls alike. The open door of the Blue Star revealed a snow that was barely coming down now, and I recall thinking aloud that it seemed we wouldn’t get snowed in after all. The electricity never went off. The phone never came back up. And you could bet that St. Mark’s would be doing without their linen come sun-up.
“Thomas?” I said gently.
Thom looked at me quizzically, not wanting to take his eyes off the baby.
I glanced over at Big Broken, and back at Thom: “Thom, don’t you think the daddy should hold his new boy now?”
Big Broken now sat fully absorbed, eyes on the tiny bundle in Thomas’ arms, wearing a face of weariness and longing.
Agreeing, yet with some hesitation, Thomas stood up slowly, being careful not to jostle the sleeping baby, as he took a tentative step in the direction of Big Broken and his wife.
Doing the same, James Merriweather stood and met Thomas Wilkes halfway the distance between them.
The two of them stood there for a few seconds, just meeting gazes, while the warmest tears began to stream down Thom’s cheeks, making my own eyes feel puffy and moist inside. For if there was ever a moment in my life where I witnessed something that actually meant something, this was it.
The words kept repeating over and over in my head: if God were a sparrow, if God were a sparrow, if God were a sparrow…
He wanted to say something. I could see his mouth moving, but nothing was coming out: Thomas was opening and closing his mouth, tears and all, like a fish lacking water in a perfectly good ocean.
Finally he found the words to say; and in the years to come, my heart would forever fill up with those words, when I recalled that remarkable night.
“James…” Thomas held out the perfect child to his father, head bowed, an open chapter. Behind the tears of a lifetime of hatred and stupidity, Thomas looked up and said something both tender and everlasting, “James…” He said:
“…he…he’s just not broken at all.”