Originally published by Watershed Review, Fall 2017
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
-WB Yeats, The Second Coming
Sweating on a bench in front of Piggly Wiggly, watching an elderly man in filthy overalls moving his slow legs across the parking lot. Annoyed crows hop away as he passes them, returning to their treat afterwards. I’m on break, and Donna in the deli has fried some chicken and mashed some potatoes, a feast to help me forget the hours of stocking shelves ahead of me. With a cold Coke and lemon pie resting on my red apron, I am a portrait of the south.
I have brought a book to read, but the heat has turned my banquet into sleeping pills. By the time the old guy has limped his way to the bench, I am two breaths away from a nap. I feel him sit, but that isn’t enough to rouse me. A click and a deep inhale, and I am wearing his cigarette smoke. I look at him and give him a half smile, and he sucks his teeth.
“They shouldn’t’ve killed him,” he proclaims indignantly, and I know a lecture will follow. It’s the way of the south, an unwritten rule: If one of your elders makes a proclamation, even if said elder is a complete stranger, a speech will follow, and you will listen. And I do.
“Thrown everything off balance,” he says. “Shouldn’t’ve killed him.”
“Who,” asks the polite southern boy who just wanted to take a break from stocking cans of snuff.
“Martin Luther King,” he announces as if I should know.
I was born in Georgia, and I grew up in Alabama and Tennessee. When I was twelve or thirteen, my grandmother openly questioned food science history when she flapped a copy of the Atlanta Journal Constitution in my face and said, “You see here it says a nigra invented peanut butter. Can you believe that? A Nigra.” George Washington Carver, the man Time Magazine called, the “black Leonardo,” the president of the Tuskegee Institute, but to my granny, he was just a nigra.
So when a man about my grandmother’s age mourns the death of Martin Luther King openly in front of a Piggly Wiggly in the center of Alabama, it gets my attention.
“Yeah,” I say. I want him to know we are on the same page. I’m listening.
“If they hadn’t killed him, we wouldn’t have all these uppity n——- thinkin’ they’re better than us.”
Not on the same page. Not on the same page.
“If they had just let him live, he’d’ve shown everyone the n——- he really was. But they had to go and make a martyr of him. Martin Lucifer Coon.”
Hearing that hateful moniker, I am transported from that grocery store bench and dropped onto a bench 20 miles and twelve years away. It was one of those summers where the blacktop gets so hot, it nibbles on kickstands until bikes collapse. I had spent much of the summer with chicken pox, living in the walk-in cooler of my mom’s flower shop in Birmingham. The cold helped with the itching, but solitary confinement and a strict “don’t touch the flowers policy” left me itching to escape.
Luckily, right across the parking lot, the Slurpee machine at the 7-11 promised both adventure and relief. A handful of quarters from the cash register, and I was racing across the parking lot, my shoes making kissing sounds as they pulled away from the hot tar.
Just feet from the doors, a piece of rebar climbing its way out of the congealed darkness grabbed my foot. A spray of coins ricocheted off cars as I, looking like I was dodging gunfire, landed knees and palms on the ground. I lay there stunned and watched the sweat drip off my nose.
A shadow moved over me, and a voice from above asked, “You okay there?”
As I rolled onto my back, a hand reached down and took my wrist. I was hoisted up and planted safely on my feet.
“Quite a spill you took,” said the thin, bearded man with eyes that looked like what I would imagine my grandfather’s did. “Have a seat,” he said and ushered me to a bench near the door to the 7-11. “Take a load off.”
I don’t know why I couldn’t speak to him. Maybe I was in shock. Maybe it was because he was dressed like a preacher. Maybe my mother’s lessons about talking to strangers were having an effect. Instead I focused on my hands, scraping grit out of my palms.
“Where you off to in such a hurry, mister?” His hand was on my back—not my shoulder, but pressed into the center of my back.
I pointed to the door and managed to get out, “Slurpee.” He asked me what a Slurpee was, and I explained it was a kind of drink that’s mostly ice.
“Good for a hot day like today, huh?”
I nodded and then scanned the parking lot for my quarters.
“It’s been hotter, but not by much,” he said. “Hey, you wanna learn a song?”
I was still on the hunt for anything that shimmered in the sun, but I heard him—I heard him, but the question seemed so foreign I didn’t respond.
“It’s a good one,” he said, now patting my back.
“Okay.” I was expecting a hymn like the ones my grandmother was always singing as she cooked: “Nearer My God to Thee” or “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
“Well, it goes like this: A fight, a fight, a n—— and a white; the white don’t win, we all jump in.”
He tapped it out on my back, but it still didn’t sound like a song. He repeated himself to make sure I’d heard him.
Here it comes. Right here. That moment where I asked the question and got the answer I wish I hadn’t have gotten. “What’s a n—–?” I asked.
He seemed stunned at first, but then pulled at his beard, straightened his tie, and said, “Well, now a n—– is a very bad person.”
“Like a robber?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Some n—– are robbers. And the head n—– was a man named Martin Lucifer Coon, but we got him.”
He sang his song one more time, this time holding my knee and bouncing it like a ball to his evil anthem.
The chicken pox on my stomach began to itch terribly, and I stood up to walk back to the flower shop without my treat.
“What about your Slurper?” he asked.
“I dropped my money,” I told him.
He reached into the pocket of his brown pants and pulled out a five-dollar bill. He waved it at me and said, “Go get me one of those Slurpers, too.”
I did, and I returned to my mother with more money than I’d borrowed and wide red grin.
Whether it was because the song was about fighting or because that word just didn’t feel right in my mouth, I knew I couldn’t share what I’d learned with my parents. That didn’t stop me from taking my song on tour around the playground at school the next month.
It became our cheer—my eight-year-old friends and me—until a teacher heard us and told us never to say things like that again. “Do you know what that word means?” she asked.
I told her what it meant. She sent me to the principal who called my mom.
I can hear my mother’s voice as the overalled man at the Piggly Wiggly spits his vitriol. She’s disappointed in me and telling me about hate and racism and her mother’s generation. “If you ever see that man again,” she told me twenty years earlier, “You tell me and I’ll let him know what happens to old men who talk like that to innocent children.” He’s right next to me, or some version of him, and my mom’s not here to step in, and I hear my grandmother talking about “roving bands of nigras” at the park and how the KKK saved so many white women from nigra rapists. And she feeds me chocolate cake with cold milk and tells me about Jesus.
Instead of telling the fat man who spoiled my break that he’s an ignorant, scared fool; instead of telling him I don’t agree with him; instead of standing up and walking away, I just stare out at the parking lot like I’m looking for my spilled coins.
My watch beeps. My break is over. I take a last swallow of Coke and stand up. He stands up.
“Name of Buck,” he says, extending his hand.
I don’t slap it down. I don’t spit on it. I don’t ignore it. I shake it. I shake it and say, “Nice to meet you.”
I walk back into work to shelve baby food and cleaning supplies, and I know that in my silence, I am that pock-marked little boy teaching his third-grade pals prejudiced propaganda. In my silence, I am worse than my grandmother, worse than old Buck, and worse than the 7-11 man. They may have been bigots and racists, but they stood up for their backwards beliefs.
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