Juneteenth, 1963

Short Story by Rick Forbess

Juneteenth, 1963

Big Tiny and Polly owned a neighborhood grocery store with two Conoco pumps out front and rarely more than three customers at a time inside. No TV or radio played in the background, no beer or cigarettes sold, and they didn’t bother with a cash register. A narrow counter ran from the front window almost to the back door, two aisles opened perpendicular to the counter, and shelves lined the walls. Other than a well-stocked cold drink box and an old Hotpoint refrigerator filled with dairy products, that was it. I worked as the store’s only employee in the summer of 1963, when I was thirteen and secretly held Cassius Clay as my hero.

Big Tiny stressed being polite to customers. He taught me to always smile and call the customers “sir” and “ma’am” on my first day, but by closing time I’d figured out that it was just an act. He didn’t like most of the men customers and tried to look up the skirts of most of the women. He didn’t know that I knew, but it was easy to see what was going on. As soon as a man pulled away or before they’d come to a full stop at the pump, he muttered something, never kind, about the guy. “He don’t pay his bills.” “His wife left him cause he honky tonks all the time.” “Look at that pile of junk he drives.” He never commented about the women, but as soon as one pulled in, especially young and pretty ones, he’d trot out the front door to do the honors and tell me to keep my eye on the money box even if Polly was in the store. When he cleaned the windshield on the driver’s side, he’d lean over and take an extra-long time wiping it dry with the chamois and look down through the bottom half of his bifocals. It was creepy, but I didn’t tell anyone about it. I didn’t tell anybody about anything really.

One June morning Big Tiny drove me out west of town to catch jumbo grasshoppers for fishing bait. We spent about an hour walking up and down the side of the road filling our cardboard boxes halfway up. The grasshoppers hitting the closed lids sounded like corn popping.

Just as we got back in his Buick, a black-and-white Ford passed heading the opposite direction but slowed and turned back. Big Tiny pulled out on the highway and drove for about half a mile with the Ford right on us, red light flashing, before finally pulling over. It was Jeff Peebles, who had worked for Big Tiny when he was about my age and had gone on to join the highway patrol.

“Morning, Mr. Strahan. Everything okay?”

Big Tiny smiled. “Things are fine. Things are fine. Polly’s holding down the fort while me and my running partner catch some grasshoppers.”

I stared out the passenger side window at two Herefords under a big mesquite tree looking back at me from the other side of the barbed-wire fence. There was no wind, and not a cloud was in the sky. Cicadas, first one and then four or five others a bit farther away started up with their singing. I felt drowsy in the still heat.

Jeff leaned on the door of the Buick with both arms straight out in front. “Well, ain’t that old timey? Where you going fishing?”

“Lake Guttman, where the Jim Ned runs in.”

“Trotline?”

“Rods.”

“Jumbos are good on trotlines, Mr. Strahan.”

“We like to reel ‘em in, don’t we, Ray Don?”

I nodded but didn’t say anything.

“Okay, take ‘er easy.”

“You too, Jeff, but why was I pulled over?”

Jeff took his Ray Bans off and glanced back and forth like he wanted to be sure no one else was around. “Let’s just say we don’t want no Yankee agitators and leave it at that. I thought it was you back there, but I wanted to make sure.”

Big Tiny lowered his voice and his demeanor switched from jolly to grave.

“Nigger lovers?”

“Yeah. No reports in the state of Texas yet, but they might circle around and come in through Old Mexico.”

Since we were less than a hundred miles from Del Rio on the Mexican border, that was a startling thing to hear, but Jeff was highway patrol.

“We’ll be on the lookout, Jeff.”

Big Tiny tugged his straw Stetson down just above his eyebrows and drove back to town with both hands on the steering wheel. After a few minutes he tilted his head slightly toward me.

“Ray Don, have you ever been over on The Hill?”

“No, I never have,” I lied.

“Well it’s something else. Years ago, when I was a teenager, me and my buddies would drive over at night. Just drive around and look. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff that goes on. Man, those were great years. You got all that to look forward to.”

When Big Tiny talked about the old days, he seemed lighter, happier. Even the Depression years didn’t seem to be so bad the way he talked. His folks didn’t have anything to lose, so it didn’t make any difference was how he put it. They were poor people, maybe worse off than my family. He told me Polly turned to the church as a young girl for support since her father was “a good-for-nothing drunk.” The saying he repeated to me more often than he needed to was, “Polly and I made a good life for ourselves out of hard work, God’s blessing, and the store.”

The truth is, I’d been to the Hill several times, always at night, and always sitting in the back seat while my father drove. As soon as he turned the old Chrysler left off Commerce, I knew where we were heading. Streetlights there were spaced four blocks apart, and the roads were unpaved. The glow of lit cigarettes and the sounds of talking and laughing drifted by as we drove past people walking along the side of the road or sitting on chairs pulled out from living rooms and kitchens into the cool night air. We drove by the darkened school and saw kids out on the basketball court lit dimly by lights from the Pentecostal Church where I heard singing, tambourines, and guitars.

My father would park in front of a house on a dark corner, kill the lights, turn the car off, and sit there, glancing now and then toward the house. In a couple of minutes, the routine began. The lights in the house went out, and a man stepped off the wooden porch and walked to the car trailed by a boy about my age. I couldn’t see the man clearly until he leaned on his forearms on the edge of the rolled down window. The first few buttons of his shirt were always undone.

“What’s going on, Rexall?” the man would ask.

This was a joke, because my father’s name was Rex.

“Man, I’m just working all the time. That’s about it. How about you?”

“Make it any way I can, Rexall. Make it any way I can,” he’d say and chuckle.

“Got a pint tonight?” my father would ask.

“Just for you, Rexall.”

The boy jogged to the house and returned holding a paper bag. Three dollars to C.C., and we pulled away.

Neither the boy nor I ever said a word, but once he made a funny face behind his daddy’s back for me to see, so I did it back, and both of us smiled. After that we made a point of crossing our eyes or twisting our faces in some weird way to try to make the other laugh. My father never caught on, but C.C. did once. He just said, “You boys are crazy,” and let it go at that.

At some point on the way home, my father would usually say something like, “C.C.’s a good man. He knows his place, too.”

Once I saw C.C. and his son when they were mailing a letter at the post office. I waved and C.C. saw me, but he didn’t wave back, and didn’t point me out to his son. He dropped the letter in the mailbox next to the front door and walked around the corner without looking my way. I realized this was how a good man like C.C. acts off The Hill, but my feelings were hurt a little.

After working at the store for a while, I spent more time inside during slow periods. It was a way to break up the boredom, and every once in a while, Big Tiny and I discussed one thing or another.

One day he was sitting behind the counter reading the Abilene Reporter News and without looking up from the page said, “That goddamn Cassius Clay.” Polly didn’t like the cussing, but she wasn’t around, so Big Tiny could get away with talking like that.

I liked the name and I said it out loud, “Cassius Clay,” and then, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” I thought the way he talked was the funniest thing.

“Ray Don, don’t ever say that sort of thing again in this store and don’t even mention that son-of-a-bitch’s name. He’s dangerous.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re a good boy, and you make good grades. If you just stick with school and don’t get mixed up with the wrong crowd, you’re going to make something out of yourself. You could make your whole family proud, but you don’t want people to get the wrong ideas about you. Be careful about who you spend time with and how you talk.”

“I will, Mr. Strahan.”

My father told me Big Tiny really didn’t need the help but hired me out of kindness. I was grateful to Big Tiny for giving me a chance to earn some money, but he was wrong about Cassius Clay and a lot of other things too.

Every year on June 19th, to celebrate what was generally called the Negroes' 4th of July, fifteen or so kids from The Hill rode their bikes single file along the curb of our main street for a few blocks. Brightly colored crepe paper fluttered from their handlebars and spun in the wheels, and tin cans tied with strands of cord bounced and clattered behind the bikes. We seldom saw Negroes, especially in a group, so the little parade drew attention – pointing and snickers mostly. The kids in the parade didn’t appear to notice or care.

Because of what was going on in the country that year, Big Tiny said he worried about what the parade might lead to. I watched stories every night on The Huntley-Brinkley Report about Negroes being beaten, killed, and tortured. They just kept on marching, and singing, and going into whites only places of business to make the point that they were as good as anyone else. They stuck together and stood up to it all without so much as raising a finger to fight back. Cassius Clay didn’t seem like that sort of person. He would get right up in a white man’s face on TV and speak down to him in a jokey but brash manner, talking loud about how he was the greatest of all time and how pretty he was. I couldn’t help but like it, but I tried not to let on that I did. When I slipped up with Big Tiny, I worried that I’d let my secret out. I was on the Negroes side, but if people knew, I’d lose my job and all my friends.

Exactly one week before the parade was a day I’ll never forget. Big Tiny left to make a bank deposit, so Polly and I were left to run the store. She excused herself to visit the washroom when there was a knock at the back door – something I couldn’t remember ever happening. I didn’t move until the second knock, which was a bit louder than the first.

When I opened the door, two Negro boys about my age were standing there. It may as well have been Jesus and the twelve disciples. The second great surprise was that the shorter one was C.C.’s son. Although I’d never seen him in daylight, there was no doubt.

“We want two cold drinks,” the taller one said, and then both took a step past me into the store where they stopped to look around. They looked nervous, but neither of them backed down.

I saw their eyes stop at the drink box, and C.C.’s boy spoke this time. “You got soda pops?” and then, “Hey, you’re Rexall’s boy.” He crossed his eyes and puffed his cheeks out like Popeye. I just froze, couldn’t move or speak.

Just then Polly stepped out of the washroom. I could tell she was stricken too. We watched the boys pull a Delaware Punch and RC Cola from the drink box, laid two nickels on the counter, and walk out the front door into the bright sunlight of mid-morning without saying another word. C.C.’s boy glanced back and winked at me.

After a couple of seconds, Polly pulled her shoulders back and walked behind the counter to sit on her stool. She reached under and brought up the New Testament, thumbed through for a few seconds, and told me to come join her on Big Tiny’s stool. I glanced out to see that the boys were gone now and then sat next to her. In a voice louder than I’d ever heard her use, she read, “Acts 3:19 – Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.”

We were still sitting there, Polly reading the Bible silently while I replayed the scene in my mind, when Big Tiny walked in chewing an unlit cigar and humming some tune I didn’t recognize. He must have picked up right away that something was up because he cut off the tune in mid-bar. Negroes had never been in the store, and my sense of shame for not stopping the boys at the door was so strong that I didn’t look up from the countertop. I could tell Polly was having an awful time describing what had happened, like she just didn’t have the vocabulary to explain something so out of this world. It took her forever to get to the part about the boys taking the soda pops. The first words out of Big Tiny’s mouth were, “That goddamn Cassius Clay.” He didn’t even apologize to Polly, and she didn’t seem to require it in the circumstances. I was pretty upset and could tell that they were too.

Big Tiny got on the phone right away. I heard him tell Polly that he aimed to call everyone in town with any pull and whose sentiments on the matter were the same as his.

The results of his efforts were mixed. According to what Polly told me, Judge Lewis believed that what had happened was unsettling but not illegal, and Doc Jennings actually sided with the Negroes. This came as a great surprise to me. Two of the most respected men in town seemed to be of the same mind I was. Up to that point I thought I was the only white person in town who believed Negroes were right about it all. Why didn’t Polly and Big Tiny see that? Polly was a Christian lady, and Big Tiny had a kind side to him. He gave me a job and he let my family take credit at his store when he knew we didn’t have enough money to make it up at the end of every month. He taught Sunday school. He let the high school kids decorate the store for homecoming week.

Three men from the neighborhood did agree to meet at Big Tiny and Polly’s house that night to come up with a plan just in case the boys’ transgression was part of something bigger, something like we’d seen on Huntley-Brinkley. Polly asked me to help serve coffee and cake and to clean up after the meeting broke up “just like working at the store.” The whole time I was nervous that Big Tiny would tell everybody how I’d quoted Cassius Clay and let the two Negro boys into the store.

Dub Campbell was a neighbor of mine who was a cut-up and a regular churchgoer, and Lummy Barnett was his best friend and the quiet type. It surprised me to see them there. The business at hand seemed too rough for these friendly guys. Maybe they knew Polly would serve cake. It was just like Earl Dobbins to show up though. He was our town’s one-armed dogcatcher but went around all puffed up like he was head of the FBI. Getting an invitation to a meeting like that must have appealed to him greatly.

No one scared me like Earl Dobbins. He lurked around town looking for unlicensed pets, usually with one or two sad looking dogs locked in a pen in the bed of his pickup. Everybody said he poisoned or shot most dogs before they made it to the pound. Even Big Tiny had warned me about crossing Earl. “He takes nerve pills from the VA. Lost his mind and his arm in the war.”

Earl lived only a couple of blocks from The Hill, and a few years back he chased down a Negro boy who had shot one of his pigs with a BB gun. The pig wasn’t hurt, but it didn’t matter. Earl found the kid hiding behind a junked car in a field. He bragged about how he slapped the kid so hard he knocked him down and then held his gun on the boy until a police officer he’d radioed came to make the arrest. The boy ended up being sent to reform school in Monahans, and even Big Tiny was surprised by that strong punishment.

Big Tiny started the meeting strong. “God has put us all in a special place. We live in a country of freedom, a state where we have wide-open spaces and opportunity, and in the best damn town in the world where neighbors look after one another. This is our home, and it’s our duty to protect it.”

He teared up as he talked, which really had an impact on me, and the men’s somber expressions told me they were moved too.

When Big Tiny tried to explain the connection between Cassius Clay and “what was going on all across the South and what’s about to show up in Guttman,” Dub Campbell asked, “What about Martin Luther King? I thought he was behind it all?” Big Tiny insisted, “No, no, these people walking in the streets carrying signs and going into white restaurants ordering pancakes and what not look up to Cassius Clay, not that preacher who calls himself a doctor.” There was quite a bit of discussion about whether Martin Luther King was a doctor and a preacher, or one or the other, or neither. The discussion began to go off the rails when Earl Dobbins started going on about a Negro he’d served with in the Seabees who played a harmonica while he operated a big Cat dozer. Dub thought that was funny as could be but stopped laughing when he realized Earl wasn’t joking, that he was trying to make a point about how lazy the man was.

“That boy was more interested in having a good time than working.”

I was impressed that someone could do those two things at the same time and tried to picture it in my mind. Of course, I kept my mouth shut.

To my relief, once Polly and I served the cake and coffee, it all settled down to complimenting her baking and small talk about the dry spell, fishing, and such. The meeting broke up without a plan being hatched, but the men agreed to be on alert and contact each other if they noticed anything that looked like trouble. I rode my bike home feeling worried about what might happen if Cassius Clay came to town.

Business carried on as usual at the store leading up to Juneteenth. Dub, Earl, and Lummy met there at noon the day before the parade and stood with Big Tiny in a loose circle under the awning next to where I sat waiting for a customer. There was nothing out of the ordinary to report, and I had read in the paper that Cassius Clay had a boxing match that very night in London, England. To my surprise, they kept up the chatter about Cassius Clay anyway, how he might sneak into town and make his way over to The Hill, and then who knew what?

Earl Dobbins seemed to be the most upset or at least the loudest. Would they try to get service at the Dairy Queen? Drive around town in a convertible with a Yankee white woman, sitting snug up against him? Turn the Juneteenth parade into a civil rights march? Have a sit-in at the store?

All that talk left me feeling embarrassed for Big Tiny because he was upset about something that wasn’t going to happen and didn’t know it. He seemed sort of pitiful to me after that, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him what I’d read. It just seemed disrespectful somehow to point out his ignorance on the matter, especially since he carried on about Cassius Clay the way he did in front of the other men.

I was worried too. Even with Cassius Clay out of the picture, it didn’t change the fact that the two Negro boys had come into the store, and with all the Negroes pulling together like they were all over the South, even up north in Boston, Massachusetts, I wondered if Juneteenth that year wouldn’t turn out to be a bigger deal than usual for people over on The Hill, and if big trouble wouldn’t come of it. Firehoses maybe, or dogs, or Earl Dobbins swinging a baseball bat with that arm.

At closing time that day Jeff Peebles drove up in his black-and-white Ford and stopped at the pumps with the motor still running. He leaned across the front seat toward the passenger side window and asked me if Big Tiny was in. I told him he was, and Jeff pulled around to the side of the store and went in. In a couple of minutes, I followed, flipped the CLOSED sign around, and locked the door. Big Tiny and Polly were on their stools, and Jeff sat on the drink box, which I was not allowed to do. Big Tiny was already talking, and Polly was nodding her head to show support for whatever he said.

“Two boys from The Hill walked right in the store in broad daylight, and they waited ‘til I was gone and then snuck up to the back door and pushed their way in. Ain’t that right, Ray Don?”

“Yeah,” I said, but I knew they didn’t really push, and how was I to know if they had waited for Big Tiny to leave or not? I should have told the truth, but I was too chicken – scared that I’d come across as a coward or a traitor. Instead, I was quiet even though it put C.C.’s son in a bad light.

“Now, if you think about it, this could well be the first step to break separation of the races wide open here in Guttman. We got Cassius Clay supposed to be here on Juneteenth, we got these uprisings going on all over the country, and we got this incident.”

Polly patted Big Tiny’s hand like she did when he got upset, but he just got louder and chewed harder on his unlit cigar. I’d never seen him so worked up. He seemed like a different man than the one who took me fishing or to The Dixie Dandy for a hamburger.

Jeff listened, nodding his head now and then until Big Tiny finished.

“I’ll tell you what my professional opinion is,” Jeff said. “I don’t know if Cassius Clay is going to show up. He may or may not, but what is clear to me is that somebody put those two boys up to what they did. Now, the question is who and why? Nobody on The Hill, that’s for sure. We’ve never, ever had any problems like that with any of them. As dumb as they are, they ain’t that dumb. So that leaves us with somebody from the outside. I suspect a Yankee, some white college boy, most likely an atheist, a communist. I think we need to do two things. First protect the store. They could be targeting this place to get a foothold. The second thing is we have to keep a close eye on the parade in case they plan to turn it into a sit-in or something along those lines. Now, I can’t be a part of it unless there’s a disturbance of some kind and I get called in as a peace officer, official law enforcement officer protecting citizens and property as laid out by law. So, Big Tiny, at the first sign of trouble you need to call the dispatcher, and ask for me to contact you.”

Big Tiny pulled back his shoulders to sit taller on the stool. “What if it is Cassius Clay? Won’t he bring NBC with him and CBS and ABC too, for that matter? “

“We’ll be smart about it, if that’s the case, but let’s cross that bridge if we come to it,” Jeff said.

I lay in bed that night thinking about all that had happened over the last week and imagining all that might happen the next day. I kept thinking about how I shouldn't have let C.C.’s son and the other boy in the store, and that I should have told Big Tiny about Cassius Clay being in England even if it would have made him look foolish. My mind went straight to all my mistakes and shortcomings, how I’d stolen candy bars from the store, how I’d pinned the blame on my little brother for setting the brush fire, how I’d shot that sparrow sitting in her nest, and a lot more.

I decided to tell Big Tiny about Cassius Clay and apologize for not doing it sooner. Maybe he’d feel more at ease about the whole situation, and we could all get back to our normal lives without being up in arms over the Negroes. I sure wasn’t an atheist or communist, but my heart had turned to sympathy for the Negroes thanks to Cassius Clay and all I’d seen on Huntley-Brinkley.

I got to the store early on Juneteenth, before Big Tiny and Polly opened up. When the two of them arrived, Polly unlocked, flipped the store lights and gas pumps on, and counted out the money she’d brought in for making change. I ran water in the bucket we used for washing windshields, hung a chamois over the edge of the bucket, swept the dust and dried leaves off the drive, and brought the paper in. Polly had the coffee brewing by then, and in a couple of minutes she poured cups for Big Tiny and me. I was stirring sugar into my cup when I heard a little bump at the back door, and Big Tiny walked in carrying a 12-gauge shotgun and two boxes of shells. He put the gun and ammo under the counter and then pulled up his stool next to Polly and started reading the newspaper. Polly walked over to lock the back door, and I sat on a milk crate drinking my coffee. No one said anything, and it was quiet except for the crinkle of the newspaper pages and Polly sipping her coffee from the saucer she always poured it in to cool.

Big Tiny finally broke the silence. “That g-dam Cassius Clay is in England.”

It seemed my worries might be over. I didn’t have to be the one to tell Big Tiny about Cassius Clay, and the notion that he was coming in to stir things up was no longer in play. If the Negroes would just keep everything to a normal routine, we could all go on with our lives without any trouble.

Big Tiny just stared at the newspaper and read aloud, “President Kennedy is expected to submit a bill to congress today with widespread and far-reaching impact on the civil rights of Negroes. Among other major provisions, the bill gives the federal government the option to file suit and to end federal programs to states that do not comply.” This was not good news as far as I was concerned. I feared it would cast a dark mood over Big Tiny, and I was right. “Martin Luther King, the Beatles, JFK, and that damn Cassius Clay. Just look out for the Mexicans. They’re next.”

I decided to finish my coffee outside, but after a few minutes Polly called through the screen door for me to come back in. I noticed the shotgun propped in the corner behind Big Tiny and that he had a large coffee stain across the front of his khaki shirt. He worked the cigar from one cheek to the other while he and Polly explained what they wanted me to do, which was to ride my bike downtown to keep an eye on what the Negroes were up to during the Juneteenth parade. If I saw anything out of the ordinary, “anything at all,” I was to pedal as fast as I could back to the store and report it. I’d be paid just like I was doing my regular job. Of course, I agreed without asking any questions. I was glad to have the chance to spend time away from the store and taking on the role of spy appealed to me.

In twenty minutes, I stood under the shade of an elm tree on the corner of 6th and Commerce Avenue across from where the Juneteenth parade always started. I leaned my bike against the side of the tree away from the street and sat facing downtown rather than looking directly across the intersection. After an hour, twelve Negro kids rode up to the corner opposite me and arranged themselves single file, tallest to shortest. Boys and girls from around eleven years old to eighteen or so joined. I heard on the news later that their basketball captain, prom queen, and class valedictorian from the Negro school were among the group.

I watched the kids chatting and laughing, in a holiday mood. The girls’ brightly colored summer dresses and the boys’ long sleeve white shirts contrasted in sharp relief from their skin color, which ranged from black to light brown. The bikes were festooned as usual with crepe paper of all the brightest colors. I felt like I was missing out on something in life, but I had no idea what is was, just a feeling without words.

When the parade began, I rode on the opposite side of the street, keeping pace but trying not to draw the kids’ attention. A few cars passed going either way, but the drivers either didn’t notice or paid no attention to the little parade.

This year no tin cans bounced and clanged behind. Instead, they sang songs. From half a block away, I couldn’t make out what the words were, but I could tell they had practiced. It sounded like a choir with all the voices blending in, and now and then the bigger kids up front would sing a line alone, and the smaller kids would sing the same line back to them. I’d never seen or heard anything like it and got so caught up in listening that I lost track of distance and found myself riding parallel to the last few kids. I heard them singing “Go Tell it On the Mountain.” I knew that song from Christmas time at my grandparents’ church. When they finished, a girl in the middle of the line called out the name of the next song, “Amazing Grace.”

Unlike years past, when the route extended to the courthouse and then returned to where it began, the kids stopped and gathered in the shade of the old building. I stopped too and kept my distance, trying to appear as carefree as could be, but I was noticed.

A boy started walking toward me pushing his bike and smiling. Purple and yellow crepe paper draped over the handlebars and wove through the spokes. It was C.C.’s son.

He shouted to me. “Hey, Rexall’s boy.”

I waited until he got closer to reply, “His real name is Rex. You’re C.C.’s boy.”

“Yeah, he’s my daddy. I’m C.C. Junior, you might say, Charles Claudius Hayes Jr. Everybody calls me Charlie. What do they call you?”

“Ray Don or sometimes just Ray.”

“We’re going on to the park. You can come too, if you want to,” he said, still smiling.

My face must have shown how surprised I was, because before I answered he said, “Don’t worry. We’re not going to the white people’s park, we’re going to ours. Come on with us.”

The two parks were within a half a mile from each other on the edge of the city limits north of town. Our park was larger, better maintained, and had more picnic tables and playground equipment than the Negroes’, but the route to both parks ran right in front of the store.

“Charlie, you can’t go there today.”

“To the park? Our park?”

“Not today.”

Charlie stood straight. “Why not?”

“Just go back home, Charlie.”

What if Big Tiny or Earl spotted these kids riding toward the store singing like the civil rights protestors? Would Polly recognize Charlie as one of the boys who came into the store? It was my fault for letting the kids in the store and not telling Big Tiny about Cassius Clay earlier.

“We can go anywhere we want to, Ray Don.”

I couldn’t believe my own words and wished I could take them back. “Then I’m coming too.”

Charlie pulled down his ears, puffed his cheeks, and gave me a smiling wink, and I followed him to the middle of the group. The other kids stood back a few feet and looked as dumbfounded as I felt. Charlie and C.C. were the only two Negroes I’d ever been close enough to for conversation, and surely a white boy joining the group of Negro kids was a first.

Charley broke the silence. “This is Ray Don. His daddy and my daddy are friends.”

I rode with the Negroes past the First Methodist Church, Gutman High School, and Stockman’s Café, trying to hide as best I could in the middle of the group. Charlie rode up front but drifted back from time to time to give me a nod or smile. The black skin of the kids all around me glistened in the sun’s glare, and their holiday clothes were still crisp despite the heat. Their brightly decorated bikes seemed to match a carefree mood, but I imagined something awful happening and expected it would the closer we got to the store.

When a girl about nine years old riding behind me shouted, “Float like a butterfly,” the other kids responded, “Sting like a bee.” She repeated her line louder, and they answered in kind with theirs. I wanted to join in, but couldn’t bring myself to. In fact, I hoped they would just be quiet and try to get past the store as quickly as possible. Onward we rode, and my dread grew stronger.

From a block away, I saw Big Tiny and Earl Dobbin standing under the store’s awning next to Earl’s truck. They turned in our direction, and Earl reached through his pickup’s open window and pulled out the .22 rifle he used to shoot dogs. He pulled the gun up and sighted the barrel in our direction. I heard him yell, “Officer of the law. Stop right now.”

Some kids rode on, and others, including Charlie and me, froze looking ahead to the store. There was no second warning. As Earl sighted the rifle, Big Tiny shoved him hard and pushed the barrel down. “Stop it, Earl. They got Ray Don.”

I pulled away from Charlie and pedaled as fast as I could to Big Tiny and Earl. Before any of us could speak, Polly ran out to wrap me in a smothering hug.

“They’re just going to the park, the Negro’s park. I rode to be sure they didn’t stop at the store.”

We all heard the singing as the group of kids from The Hill rode down the road in the direction of the two parks. Charlie led the way.

I graduated from high school three weeks ago. My thoughts this summer have mostly been about finally getting out of Gutman to attend college in Austin. I saw little of Charlie since that Juneteenth, even though our schools finally integrated during sophomore year. I had thought less often of him or of that day as time passed, but when I read the front page of the Gutman Gazette this morning that changed.

The front-page story began, “Charles Claudius Hayes, eighteen-year-old Gutman citizen, was fatally injured in Vietnam last Thursday.”

About the Author

Rick Forbess

Rick Forbess is a seventy-two-year-old emerging writer with eight published short fiction pieces. Since retirement from a long career in the mental health field, he has read more, written more, and worked on refining how to approach both.