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Five Smooth Stones
By Ann Fairbairn
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 1966 Ann Fairbairn
All rights reserved.
There was a ten-dollar bill in Joseph Champlin's pocket on an evening in early March in 1933. Few Negroes in New Orleans during those days of a paralyzed economy could boast as much. With the ten-dollar bill was a fifty-cent piece; this he had made on a four-hour cleaning job. The ten dollars he attributed to the direct intervention of the Almighty in his troubled affairs. He budgeted his windfall in his mind as he walked along the banquettes of the Vieux Carré on his way home: coffee, coal, beans, rice, salt meat, oil for the lamps, something held back for his mother, and something to pay on the overdue rent.
Geneva would be happy, he thought; Geneva would sure be happy. He planned to keep quiet about the ten dollars at first, giving her the four-bit piece when he came in, giving her chance to blow off steam because he'd worked for so little. He knew by heart what she would say, and he would not give her the opportunity to say all of it.
"Don't come crying to me, Li'l Joe Champlin!" Her voice would be sharp with worry, and there would be desperation behind it. In the early days of their marriage the sharpness had been less, more a thing of tone than of emotion. These days it sliced at his nerves. "Don't come crying to me. You think they gonna pay you good if you don't have no understanding first? Or even if you got an understanding. But you got no understanding at all, they going to take all they can get even if it's blood. They gonna take it and expect you to say 'thank-you-suh.'"
"You don't understand. Things is different. Things is bad, real bad. Even they got it rough."
"That ain't our fault."
"Sure as hell ain't, but there ain't nothing we can do about it. You knows damned well, Neva, I never done no job in my life till now I didn't have an understanding first how much I'd get. Li'l Joe Champlin got his price or he didn't do no work."
"That's because they knew you was the onlies' man could turn out the work like you do. Working like a pint-sized mule, half killing yourself."
"I'll get me my own price again, you wait and see, better times come."
"Better times ain't coming."
"They says they is. Seen it in the paper. Everything's going to be better now they got them a new President." Joseph Champlin laughed without sound. "You does a lot of talking, but I don't see as how you've had no better luck getting more'n a dollar a day washing dishes in that restaurant where they gets five dollars just for putting the water and bread on the table. That and maybe some beef ribs to tote home. What kind of a dog you tell them folks you was taking them bones home to?"
Then it would go on, Li'l Joe Champlin's voice quiet, soft; Geneva's rasping. It hadn't been like that when they'd first started living together, after he and his first wife, Josephine, had separated, or after he'd made her his married wife. Now the nagging was wearing him down.
Usually, after a few hours of it he would leave the house, sometimes slamming the door, more often letting it close quietly behind him. Then he would walk, legs leaden with fatigue, the meal Geneva had somehow managed to scrape together a burden in his stomach. Most of the time he wound up at Hank's Place and sat slim and straight at the counter, drinking his coffee slowly, making it last until he knew Geneva would be in bed. Sometimes he had a little money he'd held back, and then he would have a drink of bootleg or corn whiskey. If he didn't have the money even for coffee, Hank would trust him, winking at him to say nothing.
When Li'l Joe went home, it would not matter how harsh the words had been earlier. He would move quietlv, as he always did, undressing in the dark, slipping into bed beside the tired woman who was his wife. Just as he felt sleep creeping on to obliterate the ache of living, one slender brown hand would reach out almost without volition, and he would grasp a fold of her nightgown, holding it tightly. If he woke up through the night and found it no longer in his grasp, he would reach out again, and return to sleep with its folds in his fingers.
Tonight there would be no need to leave the house, no preliminary quarreling or nagging. He would not let it get to that stage before he pulled out the ten dollars. He thought of telling Geneva he had earned the ten dollars, and then decided against it. She wouldn't believe him. He would tell her the truth — that he had found it, wadded into a ball, on the floor of the men's toilet in the Creole Club when he was finishing his job of mopping.
Joseph Champlin was forty-two in that year when the economy of the country had reached its nadir. He was a slight, brown-skinned man, quiet in his ways. He was respected and loved by his own people and in considerable demand by the whites as a worker, because he had the capability and drive to turn out more work in a day than most men twice his size. His top weight was one hundred and twenty-five; on the night Providence had led him to the ten-dollar bill it had dropped to one hundred and nine. He could not remember the time when he had not been known as "Li'l Joe" Champlin.
When the economic rigor mortis of the depression settled over New Orleans, it had been hard for him to take whatever came his way. Not that there had ever been work he was too proud to do. His mother had taught him that, speaking as often in French or Creole as she did in English. But there had been jobs he had refused to return to because he did not like the treatment he received as a Negro. He had always resented the patronage of householders more than he did the sometimes abusive, always profane, attitude of the white straw bosses on the docks or other manual jobs. He resented the "boy" of the genteel white far more than the "nigger" of the straw boss.
He did not make all his money by manual work. He could play banjo and guitar with the best New Orleans had to offer, and when times were good he was always able to make extra money playing.
He looked with contempt on his own people who talked "poor mouth," whose voices changed when they talked to whites. He had no more scruples than the next man when it came to lying to whites as a means of self-preservation or to please them and keep them in a good mood. Lying to whites was a fact of life; it was like keeping your head up and your eyes up when you worked on the docks around the cranes, because the cranes could mean a horrid death. But if he gave his word to any man, colored or white, he kept it. If they did not keep theirs, his was not given again.
Now hunger and want were threatening to strip his dignity from him as a vulture strips flesh from the bones of the dead; they were not unfamiliar, he had known them all his life, but not in quite the guise he knew them now. He had worked before his seventh birthday, and with the pennies bought salt meat to surprise his mother. Now hopelessness was added to hunger and want. That had not been there before. There had always been hope before, within the narrow, circumscribed world in which the color of his skin required him to live.
During his adult life he had never failed to stop at his mother's room on St. Peter Street on his way to a job, to drink a cup of coffee with her. He did not change the habit now; the difference was that he was not setting out on a job, but to walk God only knew how far before dark in search of one.
Irene Champlin was a small woman, almost tiny; it was from her the man called Li'l Joe inherited the delicate look, the slender bones, the slight frame, and the hidden strength. Her skin was as blue-black as her mother's had been when she had been brought to America as a child, eight years old, straight from Africa on a slave ship. Irene spoke precise and nearly perfect English because she had taken the fancy of the woman she had been put out to work for when she was a child and had been taught to read and write and speak properly along with her employer's children. She spoke Creole and French fluently because those were the languages spoken by her own family.
She was waiting for her son the morning of the day he found the ten dollars, coffee hot on the tiny stove, the strong black coffee of New Orleans, bitter with chicory. As Joseph Champlin drank the coffee, he knew he did not want to leave the little room, wanted to sit there quietly with her, drawing from her strength. He felt dead inside, and dreaded what he must face when he walked down the worn stairs and into the streets.
She waited until she saw the shadows of his face lighten a little, and said: "It's near your birthday, son. Pray to St. Joseph. He'll help you. And when the work comes, offer it to God."
He tried to speak lightly. "Looks like God don't need no work, Ma."
There was no softness in her ejes when she looked at her son, her first and only child, but behind them there was pain.
"God never made the mouth he wouldn't feed." She spoke in French.
He was silent a moment, did not answer directly; he had seen too manv mouths in need of food these past months. "You need anvthing, Ma?"
"Nothing, son. I worked three days last week. You know that. Stop bv tonight and I'll give you some rice and some sugar for Geneva. She likes plenty of sugar for her coffee."
He did not tell her they had used the last of their coffee that morning. He had not yet told her of the real poverty of his home these days. What must she have made last week? Two dollars? Some to put up for the rent, some for the coffee she loved herself, some for rice and beans and what she could pick up at the French Market for a few pennies — filleted fish backs, chicken backs — and she would make them taste better than some of the junk Geneva brought home from the restaurant where she sometimes worked. If he told her of their need, she would wait until he had left her room and go to their house, and if Geneva was not there she would open the door with the key they had given her and leave something in the icebox or on the kitchen table.
She sat at the little table by the window opposite him. "They're waking Ruth tomorrow night," she said. "Will you be there?"
"If I ain't working."
"It's the wake for your son's wife."
"I know, Ma, I know. I'll be there, I tell you, if I ain't working. If I gets a job, no matter what time of day or night it is there ain't nothing going to keep me away from it. Reckon John would understand."
It had been six months, almost to the day, since his second son, John, born to him and Josephine twenty years before, had died under the wheels of the freight train he was hopping north to find work. John had been big and strong, with skin almost as black as his grandmother's, and had laughed a lot. "He laughs like his grandfather," Irene Champlin said. "Like my husband did."
Then John's wife, Ruth, had died in a little room on the other side of town just twenty-four hours after giving birth to their son. There was sick sadness in Joseph Champlin's heart that morning as he sat with his mother.
"Ain't never thought I'd envy the dead," he said, and stood quickly, wanting to get away, to take his sadness outside where it would not worry his mother.
She went into the hall with him and said, "God's blessing, son," as he turned from her and started down the stairs, shoulders straight and thin under the clean, starched khaki shirt. She watched him from the top of the staircase, eyes on the nappy black hair kept as she had trained him to keep it, close cut and gleaming, and she put out her hand to him as he went from her. He did not see her, only felt along the back of his neck a prickle of warmth, for he knew without seeing it that she had made the gesture.
By ten o'clock that morning he could sense there would be no work. He was far more tired than he ever remembered being at the end of a day's work with pick and shovel, deep in a ditch; more tired than he had ever been after ten, twelve hours wrassling coffee sacks on the docks. He walked endlessly, without a dime in his pocket. His belly was beginning to cramp, as it always did when it was empty, but he could not bring himself to go home. He went to numberless restaurants, offering to wash dishes, and found no takers. One woman laughed sympathetically. "We've got a waiting list," she said. "Come back tomorrow afternoon. Maybe then." Something in the straightness of his shoulders as he turned away prompted her to call him back. "I'll send someone out with a cup of coffee," she said.
The coffee stopped the cramping for a while and chased the giddiness of hunger from his head. When there was no place left to go on that side of town, he turned toward Canal Street, heading for the depot and the area back of it. Ahead of him he saw a white man he knew, unlocking the door of a small nightclub where he had played gigs with Kid Arab's band in the good days when there was music to be played all over, and the streets of the Vieux Carré were alive at night and swarming with people. The man was Tony Guastella, and the club was called the Creole Club. It was a white club, a bootleg joint, and he stood now in the open doorway through which Guastella had disappeared, and knocked on the jamb.
Ten minutes later, equipped with dusting cloths, pail, mop, and broom, Joseph Champlin was attacking two weeks' accumulation of dirt. He had not asked what the pay would be; Guastella had not told him. He wrinkled a fastidious nose at some of the dirt, but went after it in the only way he knew how, as though the devil were riding him.
Stale coffee was in a pot on a battered electric plate on the shelf beneath the bar. The bartender had washed the glasses last night, but had left the coffee to grow stale in the pot. He asked Guastella if it was all right if he had a cup, and was told to take all he wanted, and help himself to the pretzels in a bowl on the bar. These and the knowledge he would not be going home that night with completely empty pockets gave him strength to make the job a good one. Do it good enough, he thought, mebbe I can get me a little work here now and then.
When he saw the end of the job in sight, could see in his mind's eye a can of coffee on the shelf, salt meat in the icebox, and enough rice and beans to last them a while, he began to sing. Singing was not one of his accomplishments; his musical talent was strictly instrumental. His voice was rougher, stronger than his size would indicate, and he let it out now, the rhythm helping his arm with the mop:
"'Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you moan —
Oh, Mary, don't you weep, don't you moan —
Pharaoh's army got drownded —
Oh, Mary, don't you weep —
"'When we get to Heaven, gonna sing and shout —
Can't nobody in Heaven throw us out —
Pharaoh's army got drownded —
Oh, Mary, don't you weep —'"
He sang this song because it was on his mind. He had sat alone in his kitchen the night before, listening to a church "sing" in Conservation Hall, just behind their back window, in the next street. Emma Jefferson was playing the piano, anyone could tell that, playing it with a force so compelling, a touch so sure, and a sense of beauty so perceptive that her chording breaks made his flesh prickle, brought out gooseflesh on his arms. After they had sung about Pharaoh's army until he could see it, and the Red Sea swallowing it up, he waited hopefully for "He's My Lily of the Valley." It came finally, and as soon as he heard the opening chords he began to smile. In a little bit Geneva's voice would break away from the others and take off alone, take off and travel, not strong, but clear and high and sweet. The ensemble would be strong and close — "'He's my lily of the valley, everybody knows —'"; then Geneva's voice would soar like the exultant song of a solitary bird flying high above its companions — "'Everybody don' know — everybody don' know — what Jesus means —'" And then the ensemble would come under her voice and cradle it, and then it would break away again, soaring and swooping — "'What Jesus means, what Jesus means —'" He could listen to it over and over, but it was the hymn about Pharaoh's army that lived with him for two or three days after he heard it.
Excerpted from Five Smooth Stones by Ann Fairbairn. Copyright © 1966 Ann Fairbairn. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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