Read an Excerpt
Willie Mays Aikens
Safe at Home
By Gregory Jordan
Triumph Books Copyright © 2012 Gregory Jordan
All rights reserved.
Part 1. Seneca, 1954–1973
The sunlight bounced off the shiny field of wet watermelons and smacked Willie in the face. An old man sitting next to him in the pickup was sweating moonshine the whole ride over to the fields. Willie could see the sweat dripping through the holes in the old man's shirt. The stench made Willie's nose pinch; he hid his head in Cille's belly. She smelled, too. The black kids didn't start school until October so they could pick cotton, and Willie held his nose and wished he could start school in September like the white kids did.
As he hopped out of the truck, a tall white man handed Willie his bag. The burlap pricked his fingers, and the bag was bigger than the bag the white man gave his sister Hattie.
"Cille," Willie said as he tugged at his mother's purple dress. "He guh-guh-give me the wruh-wruh-wruh-wrong bag."
Cille did not look down at him. He studied that long single hair growing out of the mole on her chin, and he wanted to reach up and yank it and see if she would come tumbling down.
"You take the bag the man gives you, Willie," Cille said.
Willie and Hattie followed her into the line of red soil between two cotton rows.
He bent down for a chunk of clay and, as he raised it to his mouth, he turned back to look at the hundreds of watermelons behind him, glistening in the field. He pretended the clay tasted like watermelon as it crunched in his mouth.
Hattie was alongside him, and Willie saw her stick her first stone into the bag.
"You guh-guh-gonna get caught this year, Hattie," Willie said.
She shushed him and looked around nervously.
His best friend Cuda was in the next row.
Willie stood and called over to him.
"Hey, Cuda, H-h-h-Hattie doin' it a-a-again!"
Cuda. His smile was as wide as his belly, and his teeth stuck out when he laughed.
Willie suddenly frowned.
"How come they give you that bag, Cuda?"
Willie held up his bag to show Cuda, and Cuda leaned back and belly-laughed — the boys teased him that he was always laughing twice what with his mouth and his belly both moving.
"If you tell on me no one will believe you 'cause you talk so funny, Willie," Hattie said.
Willie felt a clogging in his throat. There were words somewhere that he wanted to fling back at Hattie like dog dirt, but he couldn't get them through his throat. Hattie smiled mean at him and bent back down to the cotton. Willie wanted to say to her, "At least I ain't as black as your papa made you. I'm a nice brown."
I talk the way God wants me to talk, he said to himself.
It was hard to tell if the sun was rising as the morning proceeded because the sun filled the whole sky. But the dew had burned off the watermelons, and Willie wanted one now not because he was hungry but because he was thirsty.
"I ain't doing it this year, Willie," Cuda said as Willie stepped over two rows of cotton and came up alongside him. "I ain't helpin' you, Willie."
"You, yes, yuh-yuh-yes you are," Willie said. He pinched Cuda's backside and Cuda yelped as they walked toward the water buckets on the beds of the pickups.
"You guh-guh-go talk to that man there," Willie said to Cuda. "You ask him about fishing and he'll talk forever."
Cuda obeyed, as he usually did. Willie leaned against the pickup closest to the watermelon fields and watched Cuda measure out the size of catfish while he talked with the foreman.
Willie reached into the back of the pickup and grabbed a burlap bag. He slipped under the rear of the pickup and crawled toward its front. There was no more than a foot from the front bumper to the first row of watermelons.
He shimmied out and pulled in a watermelon with part of its vine still on it. He rolled onto his back and slipped it into the bag. He slid back under the truck and tied the bag in a gap in the chassis.
Then he poked his head out from under the truck, looked at Cuda looking back at him as he kept talking about fishing with the foreman, and wandered to his place beside Cille out in the middle of the cotton field.
That night after supper as the mosquitoes rose from the Seneca soil, Willie walked up to the make-do ballfield the boys had swept and scratched out at the edge of their neighborhood. They were at the highest point in Seneca, a sort of infinity ridge. And when Willie hit a ball, it looked like it might sail over town until it dropped out of sight.
Willie walked up to the boys and stood proudly in front of them as he lifted the bag and rolled the watermelon onto the grass.
The boys stared as Willie threw the bag behind him, lifted up the melon, and punched his fist into it. He passed out chunks of it, and at the end of the feast, they spit seeds at one another, assumed their spots in the field, and played until they couldn't see the ball anymore and their parents started calling them home.
As he ran past the brick ranchers, the neighbors' lights guided him to the one dark spot on the street where his family's shack sat on block and beam. Closer now and his approach muffled by the crickets' racket, he saw Guy Webb stand up and blow out the kerosene lamp.
"Ju-ju-ju-just in time!" he said as he opened the creaky door and dove into the bed beside Hattie.
No one said anything back.
He poked Hattie once. She slapped him on the forehead.
"Hattie, that watermelon wa-wa-was the best I ever tasted," he whispered to her.
She pretended to be asleep and he moved closer to her, holding his hand over her nose.
"Smuh-smuh-smell it, Hattie," he said.
He was proud. He loved how his buddies reacted. As much as the taste of the watermelon, he already loved the taste of the limelight.
Coach Shaver, a squat white man with a paunch and a hairy neck and ears, walked like he hailed from a long line of tillers. He was carrying armfuls of bats, gloves, and baseballs from the back of his station wagon to home plate on the field where the black kids played on the back side of town. His kneecaps pointed inward toward one another with each step; his head was bent down toward his feet; and he walked the same precise line back and forth with each armful of equipment.
Coach McNeil, a short black man with his own tics, saw him from center field and leaned his head into his left shoulder.
The boys at first never knew if Coach McNeil was talking to them or muttering to himself. But they realized after a time that this was how he held his head when he talked to anybody.
Willie nodded as Coach McNeil walked past him and turned to the second baseman.
"He ta-ta-ta-talks funnier than I do," Willie said.
The second baseman laughed then pounded his glove.
"Nah he don't, Willie," he said. "He just turn his head funny. You talk funny."
The boys put their hands on their knees and waited for another coach to resume hitting line drives.
McNeil and Shaver didn't shake hands; they didn't even make eye contact. They were, in the eyes of many in the South at that time, up to no good — conspiring to have black kids and white kids play baseball together.
Coach McNeil turned and wound his hand in a circle to convene his players.
"Okay, this here you probably know is Coach Shaver," McNeil said. "He is the head of the Department of Parks and Recreation for the town of Seneca. All this equipment he is bringing to you boys comes out of the kindness of his heart. You all thank him now."
The boys shouted and started to jump up and down.
Shaver smiled, holding his head higher for a moment, then suddenly looked back toward town.
"Okay, let's play ball," Coach McNeil shouted. "Oh, and boys. Wait now. You don't say nothin' to nobody about Coach Shaver bringin' all these gifts! This our little secret."
Willie's team batted first, and Willie saw the station wagon still parked alongside the road up the hill. Shaver had moved it, but Willie could see his forehead sticking out the window, watching them in the setting sun. Willie hoped Coach Shaver would stay longer because he wanted to try to hit a ball all the way to his wagon.
Willie's mother heaved the big iron pot of hot water off the wood stove. She carried it over to the tub and held her face away from the steam as she tilted it. Some of the hot water splattered in spots on the dirt below the floorboards and bubbled up through the cracks.
She nodded to Willie, and he carried the big pot from the other wood stove and dumped it into the tub. His sister waited in her towel beside the bin, and Willie stood there feeling the steam rise out of the tub and engulf his face. He closed his eyes for a second.
"Get in there," Cille said to his Hattie.
"I ain't getting in nowhere until Willie turns around!" Hattie shouted back.
"Turn around Willie Aikens!" Cille shouted.
Cille went to slap him, but she missed him by an inch as he jumped away.
As he walked outside, he heard his sister step into the water, one leg splashing in and then the second.
His dog Blackie ran up to him and wrapped his front legs around Willie's belly as he jumped up. Willie rubbed Blackie's belly and kissed him back, and as he did he heard Guy Webb snarl.
"That dog's been out here eatin' shit all mornin'," Guy Webb — Cille's current husband, though not Willie's or Hattie's father, though certainly Willie's tormentor — said from his chair in the shade of a big tree. He had a jug of moonshine beside his chair. He arrived home at noon on Saturday — he got paid on Friday nights and never came home with any money left. He had been sitting in an old, rusty chair drinking ever since he arrived.
"You let a dog kiss you on the lips like that you're eatin' shit, too," he slurred.
He speaks worse than me, Willie thought. His words slide together and get half said. At least I eventually get the whole word out.
"Ain't it funny we use a white bus and they use a yellow bus?" Cuda said to Willie as they pulled into Seneca's recreation center and a few passersby stared at their bus.
"Ya would think they'd drive a white bus since they's white," Cuda said. "And we'd drive a black bus, not a yellow bus."
Willie looked sideways at him.
"A black bus and we-we-we'd be burnin' up in here, Cuda," Willie said. "Black bus only for the puh-puh-penitentiary."
The white boys were already on the field throwing and running around. Willie saw Coach Shaver in the distance. He was walking the same funny way as ever.
As they stepped down from the bus, Coach McNeil waved to Coach Shaver, Shaver waved back, and a few of the white parents looked surprised to see them waving at each other.
In Willie's first at-bat, he hit a fastball farther than anyone on this particular field has ever hit one. There was no fence, and the ball rolled into the woods. The outfielders gathered and wandered along the tree line until a coach from the bench shouted out to them to forget about the ball.
Willie homered again in his next at-bat. The third time he went up, the catcher stood up and waited for the pitcher to throw the first intentional ball.
Willie stood there with his bat resting on his shoulder and stared at the catcher.
"Wha-wha-wha-whatcha doin' that for?" he said.
The catcher looked at him.
"Coach said so," he said through his mask. "I am sorry, Willie. I got to do what Coach says."
Willie watched the second pitch land in the catcher's big mitt, and he stomped his foot. He looked over to Coach McNeil and shouted.
"Kuh-kuh-coach they walkin' me!"
After the third pitch, he started to cry. He took ball four and ran to first, and his teammates noticed he was crying and the white team did, too. Soon all the boys black and white boys were laughing in racial harmony. Coach McNeil shook his head and came out to first.
"Willie, when they walk you that means they fear you," he said into his own shoulder. "That is a good thing."
Willie sniffled and wiped his nose.
"I-I-I wanna hit, Coach," he said. "I-I-I just wanna hit."
Mrs. Brown called him as the bell rang and the other boys and girls ran out the classroom door.
Willie was too wide for the rows, and he bumped into desks as he walked up to her with his head down. He weighed nearly 200 pounds already as an 11-year old. His shoes had holes in them, so as he walked the sweat on the bottom of his feet made him slip and made the shoes squeak.
"Willie Aikens, I am very proud of you," Mrs. Brown said.
Willie blushed. For the first time he looked up.
"You are a very fine speller, young man, very fine," she said.
He wanted to run into the hall and drag Cuda back to hear this.
"And I want you to keep on trying, you understand me?"
She was speaking more tenderly now, tilting her head sideways as if about to give him a kiss on the forehead.
"Does your mama take you to church, Willie?"
"Muh-muh-muh-my mama ain't my mama," Willie said.
She straightened her neck and looked puzzled.
"Tell me what you mean, Willie."
"I-I mean me and Hattie loved my grandma more so we called her mama," he said. "My real mama, I call her by her first name, Cille. I call her Cille, and I called my grandma mama."
Mrs. Brown's forehead wrinkled.
"I see, Willie. Well, you are still blessed to have at least someone to love. Willie, I just wanted to say to you that I see how your speech pains you, but you are a very smart boy. God makes us each the way we are, and he made you the way you are for a reason. You are a wonderful speller, Willie."
He thought to himself that someday he would like to bring Mrs. Brown flowers. He knew just the ones from the edge of the woods by the ballfield that he wanted to pick for her.
Two summers later the youth league of Seneca was completely integrated by executive decree. Coach Shaver said so, all the townspeople said to each other. That was it. Coach Shaver said so. It was 1968, and Willie was 13 years old.
A couple of parents asked who the hell was Coach Shaver to decide that.
Some said it was bound to happen anyway; best if Coach Shaver started with the sports before we bring them into the schools.
A few, Coach Shaver and Coach McNeil among them, said, "Seneca is going to win ourselves a state championship one day very soon."
Even more started to say that after Willie started clobbering balls all over the county. He played a decent catcher, too, not just because he was slow afoot and played there by default but because it was the position where he could stay most involved in the game. And the whole county realized how much this kid loved to play the game.
One evening later that summer he walked home with his bat dragging on the hardtop and his glove on his head. After most games, Mr. Cunningham took the boys out for sundaes, and today Willie got two because he asked for it and because Mr. Cunningham agreed two home runs deserve two sundaes.
The lightning bugs were so thick that he could swat them. As he stepped onto their lot he waited for Blackie to run up to him like he always did, but Willie made it all the way to the door and Blackie never came. The smell of fried beans stuck to the air around the house, and after all that ice cream Willie had to stop for a second before opening the door. Standing there, he heard his mother's moans again and the grunts of Guy Webb.
He reached the screen door, and as he gripped it he felt something slick. He wiped his hand on his pants. He bumped into the kitchen table, but they kept on making their noises even as he undressed and slid in bed next to Hattie.
He poked her.
"Hattie," Willie whispered. "Wuh-wuh-where's Blackie at?"
Hattie turned suddenly, and he could tell she was sniffling.
"Blackie's dead!" she whispered.
Willie sat up on his elbows.
He sat up and lit a candle, and across the room he could see Guy Webb sprawled out on top of Cille.
Willie looked at his hand and there was blood. He held up his hand to Hattie.
"Hattie, I got Blackie's blood on my hand!" He pulled on his baseball pants and went running out the door.
Willie ran around the yard in the moonlight, and he saw a stain on the grass leading toward the brush. He threw himself down into the weeds, and he scrambled all around looking for Blackie until Hattie came out holding a candle and called to him.
"He's dead, Willie," she said. "Guy Webb said some animal dragged Blackie off and he seen the tail end of it."
Willie walked straight past Hattie into the house. He started shaking Guy Webb.
"You kuh-kuh-killed Blackie, Guy Webb!" Willie shouted. "I know you gone and ki-ki-killed my duh-duh-duh-dog!"
Guy Webb looked at him with a drunk's disregard.
"You blow that candle out Hattie Jean and you both get in that bed before I beat you," Cille said. "Guy Webb's been inside here with me all night, and you get what you deserve for leavin' that dog outside alone all the time like you do."
Excerpted from Willie Mays Aikens by Gregory Jordan. Copyright © 2012 Gregory Jordan. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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