Tuscalana city lies just 27 miles from the Alabama State line.
In 1960, the year of the story, it had a population of 36,000 and the first breezes of change were beginning to waft in the cotton woods and Spanish Moss.
The town was reliant on the growing of cotton and rice, the fields for these crops being worked by the grandchildren of African slaves. They toiled and laboured and for their effort were paid $18.00 per day.
Often in summer, the heat in the afternoon would be in the low 90’s and the humidity similar.
The Oskahana River eased and oozed through town on it’s way to join up with the Big Muddy, some 40 miles West.
A clean whipline of segregation divided the 70 % white and 30 % black communities.
It was just after 1:00 in the morning on a Saturday night in late August. A severe thunderstorm was forcast for Sunday, but as of now, it was hot, breathless hot. Any effort at all would cause a body to sweat mightily. For J.W. Stanton, sleep was impossible. He was a troubled man, the sense of gloom was with him.
Sitting on the porch he watched the myriad of insects waltzing around the light. The cicadas “zeed” and competed with the bullfrogs over in the pond by the wood. Chief James Wallace Stanton had been part of the police force here for 34 years and planned on retiring at year’s end.
Known and well regarded in their part of town, J.W. had risen from trooper then sergeant to become Chief of Police 9 years before. He was also a member and elder of All Souls Pentecostal and Revival Church.
He rolled a half-drunk can of cold Pepsi Cola over his forehead and swatted some insect off his forearm.
It was in his mind that on nights like this, maybe close to 40 years ago now, he and a group of his buddies would sometimes take a ride across town. They’d whoop it up a bit and maybe burn a cross or two here and there.
A fast-moving truck sped up the lane and eventually ground to a sudden stop near the house. Gravel dust swirled in the dim light.
After a while the truck’s door opened and the driver emerged. He was young and big. Bulky and out-of-shape big. Although partially out of sight, he had the form of Buffalo hump around his neck and shoulders which caused him to slouch forward rather than walk. A sweat-soaked under vest failed to cover his bulging midriff.
“Where you’all bin” J.W. growled. The son merely passed by his father, entered the house and let the screen door smack to.
The senior Stanton pulled himself up and also went inside.
“I’m talking to you, I asked you where you’d bin”
“Out” was the reply as the son screwed off the top of a bottle of beer. Suds overflowed and dripped onto the kitchen floor before he could get it into his mouth.
“Now you listen and listen good! When I ask you a question, I expect a goddamned sensible answer. You hearing me? You want to continue living in my house, you’ll play by my rules.
The ceiling fan whirred but afforded no release from the heat and oppressive atmosphere. Junior was busy forking a piece of cherry pie which he’d found on the counter.
“Whereabout ‘Out’ exactly?”
“We played some softball in Whitmore field.”
“It’s after the softball that I’m talking about. Near two hours ago, I got a call from Officer Briggs, who was over at the county hospital. Seems that a young coloured by the name of Wilbur Arnold had been brought in with part of his leg and arm near hanging off. There’s a whole group of his folks shouting and hollering around the building claiming he been dragged behind a truck before he was dropped near his home. From what they’re saying, it was a red truck driven by some big white guy”
“So out there’s a big red truck and I’d say you could well be described as ‘some big white guy’. Now hear this well! I plan on retiring in four months and it will be a happy and peaceful retirement. No goddam, idiot son is about to screw it up. You get back outside right now, clean up the truck and go park it in the barn. At 7:30 tomorrow morning, you come downstairs looking scrubbed and polished as a newborn, hair slicked, shirt clean. We will then drive in the squad car and be at the Meeting Hall in time to get ourselves a good helping of religion. We’ll hail and we’ll pray to Baby Jesus and we will be blessed. Folks will see two law-abiding Christian souls doing right and receiving the Word. Later we will let the town see us over at Betty’s Breakfast Grill and there we’ll behave like we’re fresh out of a monastery. Now get your fat backside out there and do as I say. do I make myself clear?”
Jeb wiped the pie crumbs from the stubble of his chin, finished the beer and shambled out towards the red truck.