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The Avenue, Clayton City
By C. Eric Lincoln
Duke University Press Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
UNDER THE STREETLIGHT
GUTS GALLIMORE turned out the light in the Blue Flame and stepped out onto the concrete apron that marked the entrance to his establishment. The night was warm and humid, and he sighed resignedly at the thought that though the day was finally over, tomorrow was still to come. Tomorrow would be another hot day, and a long day just like today, and the day after tomorrow. And all the other days were long and hot. Hot and long. He sighed again. His weight was bothering him. His feet were tired, and his bunions had started to heat up and ache a little. He set the bottle of RC Cola he was carrying home to Rosie down on the pavement so he could unlock the big iron padlock hooked through the U-bolt on the doorjamb. A swarm of candle flies and big gray moths worried around the electric light hanging just above his head. His shirt was open at the neck and wet with perspiration, and some of the pests flew down into his bosom and crawled around the top of his stomach, while others buzzed at his ears or tried to hide in his nose. Guts slapped at the bugs a time or two, and pranced delicately back and forth like a bull elephant trying to outguess a swarm of tsetse flies. Finally, he got the lock off, threw the hasp, and snapped it back through the U-bolt again. The Blue Flame was closed. The day was over. It was nine o'clock. "On time," Guts mumbled to himself, and bent over to retrieve the RC he was taking home to Rosie. When he straightened up again, he sighed once more, turned himself around, and headed up The Avenue to Rosie and a hot tub to soak his burning feet.
The Blue Flame was the only eating place in Clayton City for colored people, and there was a sign above the front door announcing to all and sundry that Mr. Ben Gallimore was the proprietor. You couldn't see the sign so well at night because the drop light that hung down in front of the door of the café was only forty watts and encrusted with grime and dead candle flies. But everybody knew that Mr. Gallimore was the owner and that his establishment was clean and respectable. There were six booths in the front part of the Blue Flame, and if you were hungry, you could get a lard tray full of hot beef stew for fifteen cents. A couple of cinnamon rolls and a Nehi Grape or RC Cola would bring that to a quarter, with a couple of ready roll cigarettes or three sticks of Doublemint chewing gum thrown in. A hamburger with everything cost a dime, and you could wash it down with a cold glass of buttermilk for a nickel more. Guts himself did all the cooking and much of the eating, as was attested by the three hundred pounds of flab that hung from his squat, square frame.
The Back Room of the Blue Flame had been cleaned out and outfitted with a Wurlitzer jukebox and a few benches scattered along the walls. Someone had nailed a sign above the door proclaiming it to be "Club Boogie-Woogie," but Guts Gallimore had taken it down and burned it in the potbellied heater that stood in the corner in the wintertime. "Ain't gon' be no boogie-woogiein' here," he said. "This here is a decent Christian establishment." Decent it was, and Spartan. All the records on the jukebox were personally selected by Mr. Gallimore unless the Wurlitzer man was able to slip in one or two on his own when he came to service the machine. And while Guts was usually too busy frying hamburgers to spend much time in the Back Room, he kept a close eye on who went back there, and anybody who had a reputation for drinking or fighting or otherwise causing trouble was turned around before he even headed in that direction. There really wasn't much to do in the Back Room except to jitterbug to the numbers on the jukebox or to sit on the hard benches around the wall gay-catting and drinking pop. But the Blue Flame was the only nightlife on The Avenue, and for an hour or two three or four nights a week, it was the recreational center for the West Side of Clayton City.
The Blue Flame closed at nine o'clock, and Guts always turned off the jukebox in the Back Room at eight-thirty to get everybody out so he could clean up and close up on time. Hardly anybody came in for anything to eat after seven-thirty anyway; but he liked to stay open to accommodate anybody who might be late getting off from work, and the young folks needed somewhere to get together besides church, so he stayed open a little longer than he needed to and considered that his contribution to the community. Guts reasoned that most of the young uns around Clayton City didn't go to church anyway, or if they did, he didn't see much evidence of its effect. As a senior deacon in the Burning Bush Baptist Church, Guts possibly harbored some secret notion that the Blue Flame could somehow help make up for what the church had been unable to accomplish. Secretly he yearned for a call to preach, but so far the divine summons had eluded him, and he would not let himself be lured into being a self-called jackleg. So over the years he had continued to wait patiently for the call from the Lord which would allow him to swap his greasy apron and the Blue Flame for a bug-back coat and a little church with a steeple on top. Nobody knew his secret ambition, not even Rosie. But any day now his call could come. Any day now he could go home and go to bed one night a businessman, and wake up next morning Rev. Ben T. Gallimore.
Each night the possibility that he was perhaps closing his establishment for the last time always raised Guts's spirits a little and gave him the extra energy he needed to trudge on up The Avenue to his wife and the hot tub she would have waiting for his tortured feet. In his fantasy he could see the look of admiration in Rosie's eyes when he woke her some morning and told her that the Lord had called him to preach. "That'll sho' be one big gittin'-up morning," he chuckled to himself.
Suddenly the moths down his collar crawling around on his wet skin seemed less bothersome, and a breeze seemed to come from somewhere across the way to break up the heat that seemed to be suspended around his chest. Somewhere in the darkness across The Avenue a tree frog was cheeping, and the crickets that lived in the tall grass in the drainage ditch had taken up the challenge and added their own protests to the night sounds. Under the streetlight a few yards away the usual gaggle of teenaged boys and older youth had gathered for their nightly session of talkin' that talk, which was the principal version of fun and games available to them in Clayton City. The revelry was already under way, and Guts Gallimore sighed with renewed weariness as he suddenly realized that the bugs in his bosom were just as itchy and the heat was just as heavy and oppressive as it always was. The breeze he thought he felt just a few minutes before had gone back to wherever it came from. Guts hated to hear anybody talkin' that talk, and it distressed him particularly to see the colored youth of Clayton City spend their time in such foolishness instead of going off somewhere and trying to improve theirselves. It didn't look good for the race, and although he'd never heard of anyone talkin' that talk in front of the white folks, white folks had a way of finding out everything, especially when colored people were making a bunch of fools out of theirselves. He shook his head sadly. "It's jest pitiful. Pitiful!" he mumbled. He'd tried to give them a nice place in the Back Room where they could have a little fun like decent people, but here they were under the streetlight as soon as the Blue Flame closed down, night after night cutting the fool and talkin' that nasty talk. Nasty talk! It was a wonder God didn't send down a thunderbolt and clean up the air around that streetlight. If God ever called him to preach, Guts had already decided where to begin. It would be under the streetlight, right there on The Avenue. You didn't have to go off to the four corners of the earth to find sin; it would come looking for you. And there it was, right out there in front of his own eating establishment. It was pitiful. Jest pitiful.
Guts shook his head sadly as he could hear the unmistakable repartee of the dirty dozens above the clapping and the loud laughter which always somehow seemed to be louder and somehow more pitiful whenever they were talkin' that talk. Two quick-tongued contestants were already hacking away at each other's family tree, prodded on to ever more colorful and drastic allegations by the third-party agitators whose job it was to keep the verbal skirmish at high heat.
"Hey, man, your daddy's so funny he'd make a three-dollar bill look real!"
"Yeah! And your mama's so ugly that when she saw her reflection in the millpond, she thought it was a turtle an' jumped in an' tried to catch it!"
"That ain't nothin'. If your A'nt Letty was in a beauty contest with a buffalo and a bulldog, she'd be second runner-up."
"Around the bend came the L&N, an' it was loaded down with your mammy's men!"
"Well, your mammy's in the po'house; your daddy's in the jail. An' your sister's on the corner tryin' to work up a sale!"
"I'm gon' tell you 'bout your sister. She wears so many flour sack drawers she flapjacks twice a day!"
"Yeah! An' you-all eat so many black-eyed peas 'til if your mama had a baby, she'd have to shell it!"
"I hear that when your daddy opens his lunch box, all he finds in it is two air sandwiches an' a long drink of water!"
"The first time your daddy went to church they buried him!"
"Yeah. Now when God made Adam, He made him quick, but when God made your daddy, it made Him sick!"
"You better watch out. You know I don't play no dozens!"
"If you don't play, just lay dead an' pat your foot while me and your mama play!"
As Guts neared the circle of revelers, he could see a tall, skinny youth of light complexion moving around in a tight circle, cutting some kind of step to the handclap rhythm of nine or ten other boys gathered under the light. It was Finis Lee Jackson, Mamie Jackson's boy who dropped out of the Academy school to work for Mr. Bimbo loading rags and scrap iron down by the railroad. Guts couldn't hear what Finis Lee was saying, but he guessed it must have been nasty, or the crowd wouldn't be whooping and hollering like they were. And he knew that as soon as Finis got through, somebody else would step into the ring and the show would go on. But he never did have a chance to find out what nastiness Finis was up to because somebody spotted him leaving the Flame and put the word out.
"Ol' Creeper comin'! Cool it."
The clapping stopped. There was a long moment of silence, and then Finis Lee, determined not to forfeit his time in the ring, took on a pious look like a Methodist preacher and intoned:
Amazin' grace, how sweet the sound It done saved a wreck like me ...
"A-man! A-man!" came a chorus of responses liberally interposed with sniggles and suppressed whoops.
"Evening, Mr. Gallimore," one of the boys said as Guts shuffled on toward the circle.
"Don't be tryin' to 'good evening' me," Guts said, looking at nobody in particular. "An' ain't no use to try to git so holy all of a sudden an' mess up no church song jest because you see me comin'. I know what you been up to. I heard you talkin' that ol' nasty talk. It's jest a sin an' a shame before Jesus in His heaven. That's what it is!"
"That's right, Mr. Gallimore. You sho' right. I been tryin' to tell these ol' nasty-talkin' boys to shape up an' get on the ball!" It was Nero Banks, one of the younger boys who had only recently begun to hang out under the light.
Without bothering to even search him out in the crowd, Guts warned, "Boy, don't you play with me. I know who you is, an' I'm old enough to be your daddy twice if I wanna be, an' I don't take no sass. If you ain't got no respect for grown folks, try to have a little bit for yourself. That's the reason colored folks like you don't never git nowhere. You spend your time tryin' to impress a no-good passel of nasty-talkin' niggers an' you end up bein' jest like them—nasty an' good-for-nothin'-but-trouble!"
The circle gave way, and Guts Gallimore shuffled on up The Avenue to his wife, Rosie, and his hot tub to soak his feet and pray for a call to preach. But other calls echoed after him through the hot and steamy darkness.
"That's right, Mr. Gallimore! You're right 'til you're left, an' when you're left, right don't make no difference."
"Good night, Guts. Don't let your meat loaf, your gravy might curdle!"
"So long, Mr. Gallimore, 'cause so short can't cut no mustard."
The circle closed in again, and the talk continued as before, but with the dozens giving way to the manly pursuits of sex and violence.
"I had a girl once with a poontang like a snappin' turtle. Wouldn't let go 'til it thundered!"
"Ol' Luke asked his girl for the key to the kingdom an' she gave him a can opener."
"Ain't nothin'. Uncle Bob got this, Uncle Bob got that; Uncle Bob got a peter like a baseball bat!"
"Don't tell that lie on Uncle Bob. If he got such a whanger, why can't he find it when he wants to pee?"
"You been lookin' for it, Juicy Fruit'? If you had a mustache, there'd be flies in it! "
"Don't call me no Juicy Fruit. I'll jack open your mouth, settle on your tonsils, and bumble out your nose like a booger!"
"Yeah. An' I'll jump down your throat, tap-dance on your liver, and hang out your ass like a tail!"
"Whooo-ee! Sounds like somebody's fixin' to get coldcocked!"
"Right! It's your mammy!"
The banter died down a little at the sound of a pair of footsteps coming from up The Avenue. When the couple came out of the shadows and under the pale glare of the streetlight, it turned out to be Joe Jipson, and a shout went up in anticipation of his joining in the fun for a while. Joe was the local wit, and he could talk that talk for hours and never repeat himself or even sound dirty. He was just a natural born hip cat; but tonight he was pushing Poochie, and since she couldn't hang around, probably he wouldn't either.
"Po' Jip! What you gon' say?"
"I'd say the boat's up the river and it won't come down. B'lieve to my soul that it's waterbound!"
"What's the good word?"
"The good word is for the monkeys, a bad word: 'Great is the power of cash!' Or to put it in the language of the people: If you ain't got no money, you ain't got no business here!"
Poochie skirted the circle and moved on down The Avenue to wait for Jip out of earshot. She knew that Jip would have to spend a few minutes with the boys but that he would be along as soon as he could.
"Well, you done give us the word, now give us the news. How come you pushin' Poochie? That's Jubal's woman. Everybody know that!"
"Everybody? Perhaps so. But what po' Jip knows for sure is that all cats look gray in the dark! And if the cat you catch ain't gray, you'll find it out come daylight. Right, my man? Right as Ripley. Believe it or not!"
"Jubal's cat ain't gray, an' you might find out a heap sooner'n daylight. Believe that or not!"
"Jubal's cat? If you're referrin' to Miss Poochie Pie, I'd say she's what you call a much right woman. She's got as much right to be mine as she has to be his. And you can plainly see, the lady is with me!"
"We hear you! Tell it like it is! Be hard on him, Jip."
"You got to be hard as lard and twice as greasy! The times require it. The circumstances demand it. What can I do'?"
"One more thing you ain't told us: How come you're out gay-cattin' in the middle of the week? This ain't Saturday night."
"Yeah, man! You got your nose wide open an' your tail straight up. Only difference between you an' a coon dog is that when a coon dog trees, he'll bay, but you're cool as a preacher getting ready to lift the collection."
"Your observation defies explanation, my man. Suppose we just say I take a little whiskey, I take a little gin, I take a little lovin' every-now-an'-then. In short, poontang's what I'm after, seven nights a week. Saturdays not excluded."
"Go hard, Jip! It's your world! Go hard or go home!"
"Thank you, my man. It so happens that home is my present destination. There is no place like home. And with the proper amenities of good food, good drink, and the comforts of love unbounded, I do recommend it to you."
"Yeah! It's nice work if you can get it, but ol' Pip can't get it. He's too short."
"No problem. Bulls with short horns should stand close!" Joe Jipson moved on through the little gathering with the air of a visiting prince and caught up with Poochie, waiting for him in the darkness a few yards away. If she paid any attention to the gibes under the streetlight, she said nothing about it. Jipson circled his arm around her waist, and they moved on toward her quarters on the white folks' yard in downtown Clayton City.
The talk under the streetlight went on.
"Hey, Red, let me hold something. Lay a quarter on me."
"I feel for you, my man, but I can't reach you. I ain't puttin' out nothin' but old folks' eyes, an' I'm puttin' them out with a pitchfork!"
"Don't get your ass up on your shoulders just 'cause you're shit-colored. Lay a quarter on me 'til Saturday. We might open a keg a nails."
"I'd rather be shit-colored and have a quarter than be blue-gummed an' be askin' for one. I'm your friend, not your father. I didn't take you to raise!"
"Both of you shut up! Anybody who'd lend either one of you a quarter may as well throw his money up a wild hog's ass an' holler soo-oo-ee!"
"Down, Fido! Somebody might ask you what you doin' to get so many quarters, or how come you always got flies in your mustache."
"Don't pee on me! Every time you open your mouth you tear your ass."
Excerpted from The Avenue, Clayton City by C. Eric Lincoln. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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