©2014 Kenneth Harper Finton
Warning: This is a story from 1961. It contains words and actions that can easily offend. It is a slice of time that was typical to most every small city in America. In the sixties, real estate brokers purposely brought blacks into all white neighborhoods to drive the prices down so they could get a bargain price for the homes, then sell to blacks that were hungry for homes of their own in a decent neighborhood, The practice was called “blockbusting”. Though it was illegal, the real estate agents made a common practice of telling the people in a neighborhood that members of a different race were moving into the neighborhood. It would depress and deflate the value of their property. The agents then sold the devalued homes to the minority group and gained a huge profit.
Across the street in the cool of dusk it came, absorbed in the dirty air with the fumes from the refinery, the exhaust vapors and the laundry lint. A song in the twilight, a gentle ballad of people forgotten except in song – sung with the grace and feeling of a girl who has known life and the odious emotions of men.
Harry Johnson sat at the table sipping his coffee as the song slipped through the open window to his ears. He called to his wife with the voice of a bear, but entwined with the song it was the voice of a lamb. He didn’t notice the coffee stained table and the barren floor, the curtainless window and the peeling paint. He listened to the song, each painful note slapping his ears, the melancholy words playing on his upper lip.
His wife Marge was a big-hipped woman and the floorboards creaked as she entered the kitchen. “What now?” she asked.
Harry Johnson looked at his wife – her hair, once wind-swept lovely – was done up in a twisted knot, her face, once painted up with care, ashy and melted.
“That song.” he said. “Where does that song come from?” he asked, pointing to the window.
“How should I know? Am I supposed to he a mind reader or something?”
“It sounds like it comes from across the street,” Harry said.
“Might be. I heard we were getting new neighbors. It’s about time, too. It hasn’t been rented since the Talberts moved out.”
“Listen to the song,” he said. She listened with a wrinkle in her brow as the song blew in the window window with the sounds of passing cars, listened until it stopped and the sounds of the street were the only sounds.
“She’s got a good voice,” Harry said.
“She must be young,” his wife said. “No more than fifteen, l’d say.”
“It sure carries,” Harry said. “All the way over here from across to street and it sounded like she might have been sitting here at our own table.”
“You could have bought that house, you know,” Marge said. “How would you like to be raised up in this place like Carolyn? How would you like it if you didn’t have a yard or trees or a house where you could stretch out and live? You could have given us something decent to live in for once. You could have bought that house, Harry.”
Harry’s face reflected thoughts and longings that ran deeper than his mind. “I know,” he said in a husky voice.
The cool of the evening was streaming in the window. “It’s probably the night that makes her voice carry,” Marge said, sensing Harry’s feelings. “Voices carry along towards night.”
“That must be it,” Harry said.
But now the song is gone and Harry notices the coffee-stained table and the drabness of the room. He was glad that it was Friday.
“Tonight’s bowling night,” he said. “Where’s my ball?”
“In the closet.”
Harry knew that the ball was in the closet. He always know where it was, yet every Friday evening be would ask, “Where’s my ball, for that was the way he asked if he could go bowling; and every Friday evening Marge would say, “In the closet,” for that was the way she would tell him he could go.
He went to the closet and picked up the brown canvas bag that felt heavy and worn in his big hands. He slipped on his jacket, for the night air would be cool. After he was gone he looked back at his apartment from the shadowed street, then looked over at the house across the street – the house he should have bought. It felt good to be away from the apartment.
* * *
Harry Johnson saw his three friends waiting for him at the intersection. There was no use catching a bus for is was only seven blocks to the bowling lanes and it certainly was a fine night.
He was glad to get away, glad to leave the apartment. He had always felt like a prisoner there with the dingy rooms and the burdensome voices and the evening when there was no peace. He would have bought the house across the street, but the neighborhood was becoming shabby and Harry was afraid he would lose if he invested.
“We’ve been waiting.”
“Hello, Art, Dick. Joe.”
They walked down the street toward the lanes. Art Richard was a tall man, half a cracker thin. He held his hands against his sharp and jutting chin. “Hear the news?” he asked.
“About the new neighbors.”
“Across the street?” Harry asked.
“Oh, you know then.”
Harry looked hard at the tall man with the sharp chin and a mouth that spoke lies. “That’s nothin’ to joke about,” he said.
Their strides quickened as though they wanted to leave a place where dirt and scum flowed into the gutter. “Moved in today,” Dick Marcus said. “A whole family of them.The nigger’s got a wife and two kids.”
“It can’t be,” Harry said.
“The whole neighborhood will go next.” Art Richards said, “I saw it happen over on 42nd Street. One nigger moved in and the rest started to come. It won’t be safe to step outside if we let them stay.”
“That’s a fact,” Dick Marcus said.
“We can’t let them get away with it. We gotta drive them out.”
“The way I look at it, we don’t have any choice,” Dick Marcus said. “We have our families to protect. Don’t you think so, Harry?”
Harry was thinking of a little Negro girl with a dark face, a song floating from clipped white teeth into the dark of night. “Sure,” he said. “Sure. It’s the only way.”
None of the men bowled well that night. There were plans to make and wrongs to right. As the balls spun down the alleys and the pins clattered and the beer foamed in their throats, they talked.
After the match they stopped at the bar. Their voices stilled and they were silent. The bartender’s bald head glistened with as he asked them what was wrong. Still, they were silent.
Then they walked down the street. The night air was getting cooler. Art Richards pulled the zipper on his jacket clear up to his pointed chin, but the chill stayed in his spine. The city was enveloped with a hush that could only be surpassed by the silence that hung over a little town called Bethlehem, so far away and so many centuries ago. With the silence came a fear that that sliced the night.
Harry Johnson felt the fear, felt it crawling is his spine, felt it twisting is his stomach, felt its macerations in his knees.
“Isn’t anyone going to do it?” he yelled. “Here, should I throw the first stone?”
He picked up a stone from the deep, silt-filled gutter and hurled it with all his might. The crash of breaking glass slapped his ears. He dropped his arms and his mouth hung open wide. Suddenly, everyone was throwing rocks and stones end shouting curses, yet the house stayed dark and quiet. The air was heavy with an oppressive blackness.
After it as all over, Harry Johnson stood at his kitchen window in his underwear looking out across the street at to house that he should have bought. He saw the yawning blackness and the broken panes, noticed that there was one window still unbroken, one window reflecting the twisting flames of the burning cross.
Tomorrow morning came as tomorrow mornings have a habit of doing. The untried light from the liquid sun found four men standing at a bus stop, waiting. Thee refinery was to run overtime today. The four men men were happy to make some extra money for themselves and their families.
Art Richards whispered – for he didn’t want the world to hear, “We sure got them last night, didn’t we?”
No one said a word.
“They had it comin’. Just wait ’til tonight if they’re still there.”
“I don’t know if I want to do it again,”Joe Gantner said.
“For Chrissake,” Harry said. “You don’t want your kids to grow up with a nigger for a neighbor, do you?”
The words came out of Harry’s mouth, but he did not know why.
“No, but still…”
“Still hell,” Art Richards said. “We’ve got to get rid of them, that’s all.”
The bus came out of the morning and the four men went to work.
That evening after the factories closed and the men poured out like ants from their threatened castle. Harry Johnson sat over his supper of meat and potatoes, but he only picked at his food.
“Did you hear what happened to our new neighbors, Daddy?” Carolyn Johnson asked.
“Yes, I heard.”
“It serves them right,” Carolyn said. “Imagine the gall of them moving into an all white neighborhood. They have a daughter my age, too. How creepy!”
“That’s enough,” Harry snapped. “I don’t want to hear any more about it.”
He looked up at his wife’s face and saw the smirk on her lips. She knew.
After the last cup of coffee had been downed, after the dishes had been cleaned away to the sink and Harry Johnson was left alone with the falling sun, the song began. It was the same song, but ever so more haunting than before, scratching on the window, begging to penetrate the walls and bound into the heart.
He got up from the table and went to the window. Nothing seemed important except the song, for the song was life and life was important. But after the song ended, Harry felt the emptiness that he had felt before, for the song had lifted him to places he had never been before.
He went into the bedroom and took off his dirty work clothes and threw them on the bed on top of the sheets that looked like dirty handkerchiefs. He tried not to think.
“Going out?” his wife asked, as he walked toward the door.
Harry shook his head.
“Do you want your bowling hall?”
“No, I don’t want my bowling ball.
He opened the door, but behind him were words: “Harry?” He turned around. “Harry, be careful.” The look in her eye said ‘be careful’ and the sound of his heels on the steps rang out in his mind like a solemn chorus whispering the words ‘be careful’.
Dick Marcus was already at the bar. They sat at a little table in a darkened corner and nobody saw them. In an hour there were six of them. They were Art’s friends. Harry didn’t care to know them.
He sat fingering his drink, but finally drank it. It felt good and warm in a hollow stomach. He had another and another, then another until he was dizzy and weak and nothing mattered anymore – not the blacks across the street, not the apartment, not his wife or daughter of the house across the street.
It was nearly midnight when they walked back, the six of them. They thought they were an army. Six thousand strong they might have been and they could not have felt stronger of more fearless. They walked down the street on this Saturday night with Sunday morning a haze in a crystal ball. They walked under the stars that were blinking in the sky, under the moon that was an ocean moon like the ones that Harry had known and loved on a battleship is the South Pacific so may centuries ago.
Then they were is front of the house with the shattered glass. “Hey, you in there. Hey, niggers,” Art yelled, the liquor warm in his stomach. “Hey, you goddamned black-eyed son-of-a-bitch. We’re gonna get you. We’ll come back ’til you’re gone! You hear that niggers. Until you’re gone. Every goddamn night ’til you’re gone. We’re gonna get you, niggers.”
“Get their car,” yelled one of Art’s friends. “Get these black sons-a-bitches.”
The little army ran to the old, shabby car. One of Art’s friends drew a hammer and the glass was smashed. The tires were cut end the six were able to turn it on its side so that it lay dead with its tires spinning.
Somone had phoned the police and they heard the sirens cutting into their backs as the big black man and his daughter came running from the house.
“Get away,” the man yelled. “Get away from my car. Get away from my house.”
“You black-eyed son-of-a-bitch,” yelled one of Art’s friends. “You black scum of the street, we’ll show you.” Four of them grabbed the big man and left him bleeding on the walk.
“Get away from Poppa,” yelled the girl, pulling on Art. “Get away!”
A fist to the face sent her reeling on the walk, her night dress was up to her waist.
“Get her.” screamed the night. “Take her away,” but no one could tell who was doing the yelling. Harry saw two of them pick up to girl and run down the street under the street light and into to dark. “Run, you fools. Can’t you hear the cops?”
They ran into to alley and up to block. The sirens stopped, but the red lights flashed and shone orange upon to house across the street.
Harry awoke to to rattling of coffee in the percolator and to pungent odor of frying bacon. He could hear the floorboards creak as his wife walked over to to bed. “Harry?”
“Yeah, I’m awake.”
“Get up. You’ll be late for church.”
“Get up. It’s Sunday morning.”
He opened his ayes and looked into the face of his wife, the ashen face with wrinkles he had never seen before.
“I don’t want to go to church,” Harry said and closed his eyes. He could feel her staring at him and he opened them again.
“The girl, Harry. What about the girl?” There were tears in his wife’s eyes.
“What about her?”
“What did they do to her?”
“Oh, hell, I don’t know. There were these two friends of Art’s. 1 don’t know.”
“They raped her, didn’t they, Harry?” she said. Her voice was coarse and cracked.
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll bet they didn’t stop there, Harry.”
“I don’t know.” He saw the tears stream down her cheeks and reached up to brush then away with the back of his hand. “Do you really think I ought to go?”
“Sure,” she said. “Oh God, yes. Oh, Harry…”
Harry stood at the window and looked down upon the street before he put on his woolen suit and the snap-on bow tie. He saw the broken glass and the blood on the walk, the peeling paint and the broken shrubs.
He thought of a song, a song in the dusk and the voice of a maiden ringing out like a bell in the twilight – a voice that made him forget. He looked around the room that was more dismal than it. had ever been before and he knew that he would never forget again.