Itna Homa, Mississippi, is like many small Southern towns in the early 1960s. News travels fast, gossip even faster, and one ugly incident has the power to set the entire community aflame. Forty years ago, the murder of a local white woman shook Itna Homa to its core and resulted in the conviction—based on circumstantial evidence—of a young black man. Now desegregation at the University of Mississippi is the talk of the town, and fear and prejudice once again threaten to tear friends and families apart.
For middle-aged housewife Allie McCall, the civil rights movement offers a welcome opportunity to reconsider her own life. She is open to the new ideas about race, class, and gender that are sweeping the country, and eager to see them gain greater acceptance in her hometown. Shocking her husband, Tate, and confounding the local political establishment, Allie enters the race for town constable against a long-serving and bigoted incumbent. As a voice for progressive reform, Allie hopes to encourage her like-minded neighbors to speak up. But her quest has another, more personal component—it was Allie’s mother who was killed all those years ago, and Elgie Hale, the man accused of the crime, has recently escaped from prison. Allie will risk everything—her marriage, her safety, her principles—to track down Hale and determine his guilt or innocence once and for all.
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By Joan Williams
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Joan Williams
All rights reserved.
The dust was thick. It obscured the four small white stores of town when a car passed. The dust slid down the grooves in their tin roofs. In nearby pastures, trees were covered and had a hangdog look. The one smooth road through town reflected the sun. Town seemed emptied, a place where everyone was hiding. Four old men sat around a stump playing checkers on the porch of Loma Murphy's General Merchandise store, and might have been calcified—there forever.
A battered gray Oldsmobile swished to a stop beside Loma's single, locked gas pump. The old men slyly watched a thin and tired middle-aged Negro woman get out. She wore sandals fashionable for that time in hot weather, flat rubber soles held on by thongs. She did not glance in their direction, much less nod. The shoes slapped the ground and then the steps as she went up them, revealing heels whiter than her brown feet. She left behind, for the old men, the prominent smell of her cologne.
Inside, Miss Loma looked past the woman as her door's bell tinkled. "You want some gas?"
"Yes'um. I want to fill up."
Miss Loma reached overhead to pull a string, which unlocked the pump outside. "I have to have my customers wait on themselves," she said, smiling.
The woman's face had no particular expression. "I don't care to pump gas," she said. "Don't seem ladylike to me. I know I'd splash my clothes."
Loma stared at the Negro; her hand came down slowly. "Were you wanting anything else?"
"Yes'um. Ivory soap flakes. Some Vicks. Got a cold."
The door opened then with a great clatter. John Q Dobbins rushed in with important news written all over his face, motioning Loma toward the rear. "John Q," she said tightly, "I'll hear later. I've got me a customer that can't pump her gas."
John Q stopped himself, like someone in the old child's game Statue; he froze as if he were still running. Miss Loma had a clear pleading look on her face. "Can you help me, John Q," she said, meaning she did not need to lose even one customer's business, as he well knew.
His eyes were hard when he looked at the Negro. The woman kept her profile toward him and stared toward the rear; he muttered something in a tone that was clear, but since his words were not, he could not be directly accused of anything. He let the door slam. When he stood speaking to the old men, one got up and peeked inside the store, his face pressed directly to the window. Loma thought she could hear the gas pumping violently, though the store was sealed up against hot weather. The air conditioner blew chills down her spine. "Anything else, then?"
"A big bag of potato chips. A pound of butter."
"Butter's high as a cat's back." Loma lifted her head a little. "I don't carry anything but margarine for my customers."
"Well, my goodness," the Negro said. "I just hadn't paid any attention to the price."
"Maybe I don't carry in my store what you need," Loma said. "Mose Perkins across the road has a lot bigger selection," nodding her head.
The woman's gaze did not follow Loma's gesture. "You're pumping my gas, ma'm. I don't want to have to do my shopping in two places. I'll try your margarine, and I'd like a dozen of your oranges."
"Then you'll have to step in the back," Loma said, "to pick them out."
"I trust you not to pick me out any rotten ones," the woman said, almost smiling.
"I don't ever leave the front unattended." Loma looked outside for John Q. He was still waving his arms and talking. She saw the gas suddenly rush out of the woman's tank and all over him. She clenched her fists. She was losing money.
Unclasping her patent-leather purse, the Negro took out a bill. She flattened a fifty-dollar bill against her chest, watching Loma's face. "I can pay for what I want. You get it, please, ma'm."
So Loma went to the rear and got what the woman wanted, watching her as she dropped the oranges one by one into a large opened sack, each thud sounding as if the bag would split. Then coming back she met John Q walking in, his boots splattered and smelling of gasoline. He rubbed his hands red on a greasy rag.
"How much I owe you, sir?" The woman stepped forward holding out the money.
"Me?" His voice had a surprising squeak. John Q was a large man. "I don't work here. I'm doing Miss Loma a favor." He grasped the holster around his waist. You know who I am, he was saying.
The woman's lips were lighter than her skin; they whitened turning up at each corner for a vanishing moment. She turned patiently and held out her money to Loma. "Ma'm?" she said.
Loma's hands fluttered above her cash register keys. She opened it without looking inside. "I can't change that bill. You have something smaller?"
The Negro sighed. "I guess I've got something smaller." Looking into her purse she finally brought out a twenty.
John Q was whistling between his teeth. Loma read the gas-pump meter through the front window, and then made change. "Thank you," the woman said. After proceeding to the door with her groceries, she clattered it politely shut.
"Who in the name of Sam Hill is that?" John Q said.
The woman drove away without noticing anything, but all left behind watched her car till it was out of sight of town.
"She's one of these new Negroes who've moved down here from Memphis to work in the underwear factory that opened out on the highway. Some of them want to get away from the city and get out into the country, like white people are doing."
He stumped to the front window in his boots and stood there again, as if daring her to come back; the old men looked up expectantly. John Q only turned back around.
"What was it you were bursting to tell me?" Loma said.
"Just that," he said, nodding toward the road, "they're bringing that Negro James Meredith into the University of Miss'sippi Sunday night, to integrate the school."
"Then it's the end," Loma said, looking out the window. "The end of living the way us Southern white people have. And that woman knows it."CHAPTER 2
The numerals 1962 stood out prominently on a funeral director's calendar tacked near the front door. Loma felt that date imbedded in her heart. Just as she adjusted her handprinted sign in the front window, gone crooked, If You Can't Stop Wave, she saw Allie McCall pull up in front. Then going past so fast, so close Allie's skirt flew in the breeze, was what the townspeople called a "wop" car, since nobody could remember its real foreign name. Quad Brewster slid quickly to a stop, and got out. People in town lined the road to watch him curiously, surprised the boy would avoid a rooster. Was he drunk already, this early in the day? He mocked the rooster running in its crazy frightened gait till it disappeared by ducking under one of the two stores opposite. Letting out a long crow, Quad Brewster got into that low car to fly on toward the Delta, out of the hills, where the next county was wet.
Allie hurried inside, moving faster than she usually did. "John Q Dobbins," she was saying, "you go out there after that boy! What kind of constable are you?"
Loma turned to stare at Allie, that she would light into John Q so; Allie was usually such a quiet woman. Loma nodded at her encouragingly. Allie said what everyone seemed to know. "He's going to run over somebody out there in the road one of these days."
John Q simply stood there like a whipped puppy. He lowered his head. "When'd womenfolks start telling the law what to do?"
Allie looked startled; some thought crossed her mind. "Why," she said, "I suppose when the law stopped doing its job."
"I have spoke to the boy," John Q said, still peevish. "He knows he's not supposed to drive through town so fast." He tried to smile. "Told him we don't have but three hundred folks and need all them."
"Spoiled rotten the whole eighteen years of his life and his daddy owning the county have ruined him. Everybody scared Mister Brewster'll call in their mortgages, or not give them any credit, or not gin their cotton if they do one thing against his precious package," Loma said.
"Oh, but surely that day is passing too—you've heard about Ole Miss?" Allie said. The others nodded. "People are going to stop worrying about some family's name. Mister Brewster is just a figurehead. Inherited everything and doesn't know how to run anything himself."
A stranger walked into Loma's store, a blonde, young, kittenish woman who looked a bit flea-bitten. She was barefoot. White people simply did not come to town like that, even in hot weather. Here at the end of September the thermometer continued to hang around ninety-nine degrees. The woman waved a frail handkerchief with change tied up in it. "You got a phone I can use?"
Loma nodded toward the back. "You'll probably have to wait for the line to clear."
Who is that? Allie asked, raising her eyebrows as a question. Loma shrugged. Nobody knew if Loma didn't, because storekeepers knew everything.
"Well," said John Q, returning to his conversation, "if that boy gets into the university, he'll only stay as long's the marshals are there. As soon as the marshals are gone, that nigger'll go too."
"John Q! That's a very offensive word," Allie said.
"Please don't use it in my store, honey," Loma said. "You know I need my Negro trade."
"What'um I supposed to say—black?" John Q said that like a sheep bleating—bla-aack—so that it sounded as bad., When the blonde laughed in the rear, John Q swelled up like a peacock preening its feathers. Loma and Allie exchanged a disgusted look. "Honey, isn't that line clear yet?" Loma said.
The woman said, "It wadn't," and picked up the receiver and set it back. "If you bang it down hard they're more likely to hang up," Loma said. She looked in despair at the others. "I asked to be on a line with three other businesses, but I would have to draw Sudie's Klip-'n-Kurl. That's as bad as having a homemaker on the line."
"Somebody's trying to decide 'tween Poinsettia and Fire Engine Red," the blonde said timidly.
"Got to be Miss Pearlie Mae. If she'd let her hair be natural she'd look better." Allie, at fifty, had stopped touching up her own few gray hairs.
"Nothing in creation the color of her hair but the rear end of a baboon," said John Q. The blonde twittered. The other two women shook their heads in annoyance that men were such suckers for flattery. The woman had wandered back. "I declare, I wondered where such a pretty box of candy come from."
Loma lightly touched one of the fancy boxes she had carefully pyramided on a counter. She fingered some of the pretty, stiff, pink crinoline bow-ribbon around one, then a velvet flower that was tucked in to it. She said, testingly, "You had a box like this from my store?"
"I don't know where the pretty thing come from. It was give to me. Mine didn't have that pretty little old flower, though. I wished it had of." The woman dimpled. Loma's sudden strangeness made Allie remember something Loma had told her a long time ago. "You'd be surprised," Loma had said, "how many men I know driving round this countryside with a box of candy under the front seats of their pickups." "Where'd you say you stay, honey?" Loma always probed for information by pretending she knew something, but had only forgotten.
The woman said, "Over toward the government dam," which told them little.
Picking up the evening paper from Memphis, John Q tossed down a coin. "It's the university now, but Eisenhower sold out the Southland over yonder in Little Rock. A Judas to all us little Southern folks who voted for him. Now Miss'sippi's whole public school system's going to be integrated. Anybody got kids haven't eat with niggers yet, they will have soon."
The woman in back sucked in her breath; Allie and Loma both reproached John Q again. Slapping his paper to his thighs, John Q said, "Well, I hope Little Black Sambo gets hisself plenty pancakes in college."
He departed. Loma's pleasant storekeeper's smile remained frozen, while Allie stuck out her tongue behind his back. But the blonde stood at the rear of the store laughing to beat the band.CHAPTER 3
Allie could not forget the sudden sharp intake of the blonde woman's breath, the way she looked when John Q mentioned the schools. Red-necks were the very people who hated Negroes most—what else did they have but to kick one, the saying went. Already, after James Meredith began trying to integrate the university, people here had started talking about a private academy. In a little country town like this, that sounded absurd, but country people were good about laughing at themselves, the way they were good with their hands. They planned to remodel the large brick schoolhouse for it at one end of town. The building had been going to ruins since the county schools had consolidated.
"Honey, keep on that line!" said Loma, as a warning. She did not like strangers hanging around unless they were buying. Suddenly, asking for another town, the blonde waved to Loma to mean she'd pay, stop worrying.
"Momma, hey. It's Iona. Heard on the radio you all had a tornado down yonder. I got worried. Heard some men escaped from Parchman. You hear from Brother?" She listened hard. "It's nice of 'em to let him call."
Loma looked busy counting change. Trying not to listen, Allie went over to the front window. John Q was talking to the old men playing checkers. She looked out at pastureland belonging to her poppa, at cows standing beneath willows, which dipped into a pond that was muddy and opaque like all in the countryside. A streak of yellow was the beginning of the driveway leading to her house. Although she was unable to see it, she knew how things looked from the road. Except in the dead of night, blue/black/gray shadows were always jumping at one window, which meant Poppa was watching television; though what more could she expect of him at ninety? The window's strange glowing was an example of things not being what they appeared. As far as others knew, she was a calm matron happily taking care of her husband and home and old daddy. Yet now, without warning, she began to shake, because all her life she had fought against a feeling of nothingness, and in middle age she had the terrible fear that she was losing that battle.
She had never been content with the idea that one lived for each day. She could not live, either, believing the point was only to be good enough to meet her Maker; could not believe, as an older generation had, that this life was a testing ground, and heaven was where life began.
She wanted to accomplish something, she wanted something of her own, so that if Tate were to die, she would not be just Allie McCall, his widow. She feared idleness and life without meaning. But how much easier it would be to give up, give in, and grow old.
Now the sky was flattening out serenely toward suppertime, yet the tornado down south could be coming this way. Peaceful times could change overnight, with the university integrating: so many changes, so quickly. An astronaut planned to orbit the earth eighteen times in one day. Why can't I change my life? Why can't I? Allie thought.
Loma was calling, "Allie, won't you take a cold drink with me?" Allie turned from the front window. "Too near supper," she said. "I'd better go. I left Poppa beans to string, but he won't. Ask him to put in a new roll of toilet paper, and he says that's womenfolks' work."
"Everything here cut and dried in that respect," Loma said. "Always has been and probably always will be."
"Well, maybe not," Allie said.
Banging down the receiver, Iona then threaded her way toward them around stacked cardboard boxes, oil barrels filled with trash, and some old cedar church pews Loma hoped to sell.
"Had a tornado down your way?" Loma said, accepting money for the call.
"Yes'um. My—I mean, somebody told my momma lights went out at the penitentiary, and four colored prisoners escaped. Said one's from up here."
"Up here? I don't know of a one of our Negroes in Parchman," Loma said.
"Well, if he is from round here somebody better be expecting company. I know that from experience. Prisoners are like homing pigeons, ever time." She went on to the door. As if John Q were still there bleating, she looked back before opening it. "Black," Iona said. "Child, if black is beautiful, I have shit many a masterpiece."
She went out calmly, leaving total silence after the bell's slight tinkle. Then Loma said, "Why, have you ever!" She answered herself. "No. I never." She turned toward Allie, whose face bore a look as astonished as her own. Quite clearly, they had never expected a woman to say anything so vulgar, particularly in public, and they had never expected to laugh. Then suddenly they were saying if they didn't stop, they'd tee-tee in their britches, though they were not laughing at the remark, but because it was refreshing not to be hypocritical and stand there like two old biddies with their bosoms stuck out and saying things like, My land! What is this world coming to! Because what it was coming to was being more open. Allie had long felt she strained against all the things dictated to her by being born in her time and place.
Excerpted from County Woman by Joan Williams. Copyright © 1982 Joan Williams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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