Eleanor King

I reached New Orleans by noon and parked the truck in front of a dingy house on a worn street in Jefferson Parish.  As I approached the front door I eyed a dried up canal that ran along the side of the house, stinking of piss and something sweet.  I ascended the six narrow steps and rapped on the screen door.  The front door slung open, offering a view of a dark hallway.  A shadow moved into that hallway and came to stand on the other side of the screen.  She was a short, round woman with a dusting of thin gray hair.  Her brown-black wrinkled skin clung to her bony face and her russet eyes looked out at me with probing dislike.

‘We talked on the phone,’ I said through the screen.  ‘My name’s Jackson Calvert, Maam.’

‘I know who you are,’ she said, curt and no-nonsense.  ‘Spittin’ image of that man.’

‘So everyone keeps telling me. You knew my father?’

‘Knew him well enough.’  She gestured that I should come in and I pushed through the screen door and into the house and the dark hallway.  She led me to an unlit room; some sunlight snuck through blinded windows but otherwise it was all shadows.  ‘I’d say I get you some tea but I warrant I want to see you go just as quick as you came.’

‘Yes, maam.  I just have a few questions.’

‘Sure you do.’  She moved toward a worn upholstered chair, paused, thought better of it, and retreated back down the hallway.  From another room I heard lids clanking on jars and then came a long quiet.  I was about to get up and see what had happened when Eleanor King returned bearing two steaming cups.  ‘Warrant we do need that tea.’

‘Thank you, maam.’  I took a sip.  It was too hot to drink just then.

‘Why you show up on my doorstep?’ she said.  ‘Shoulda known better than to think I wanted to see that face.  Bad enough you got to come here and upset an old woman’s rest.’  She hadn’t looked at me, not since I entered the house, but now she turned her eyes on me.  They oozed righteousness.

‘Maam….’  I looked away from those eyes.  ‘Maam, I can’t ask my father these questions.’

Eleanor King smiled.

‘No, Son.  Bet you can’t.  He wouldn’t answer.  Not knowing the kind of man he is.’

‘What kind of he man is he?’  I felt like a fool asking a stranger this question.  Eleanor King began to laugh.

‘I met that man once.  He came ‘n threatened me.  Coward that he was.  He carried messages for the people behind all the trouble.’  My heartbeat quickened.

‘Who?  Who’d he carry messages for?’

‘His daddy.’  She slapped the arm of the old chair.  ‘He was Daddy’s little boy.  The way he talked bout his daddy you could tell he was ‘fraid of him.  Carried messages for the Govner, too.  Govner was the one with the power.’  Now she gripped the arms of the chair with hands aged like driftwood.

‘You’re talking about Earl Watkins?’

Eleanor King winced.

‘Don’t say his name in my house.’

‘Then I guess you haven’t heard that Earl—eh, the former governor I mean—that his grandson is following in his footsteps.  He’s running for Governor this fall.’  Eleanor King shook her head.

‘Hope he don’t take too close to his Pappy.  Wish all them just left us alone.  Wish they never came into our lives.  Sometimes I wish Clyde didn’t have to be so stubborn.  “Integrate Southern,” he used to say.  “Gotta integrate Southern.”  Why he gotta do that?  Just a school.  Just a place.  No better than our home.  But my brother—he was a brave boy.  Real stubborn.  Just like our Daddy.  He never got scared.  He tried to go to that school, even after all the threats.  Some of ‘em said they’d kill our little brothers, but even then Clyde never backed down.  Said he wanted to help make it a better place for Henry and Marshall.  But he couldn’t take care of us from prison, ‘specially after he got sick.’  She peered now at one of the shadows, hoping it would materialize and weave her story for her and spare her the pain of looking back.  ‘Clyde, he tells me what that man—your Daddy—did and said to him in that jail.  He tells me all the things he did and said.  So I know that man.  Thought you were him when I saw you at my front stoop.’  Eleanor slumped back in her chair as though to rest but I still had questions.

‘What did Clyde say about him—about my father?’

‘And why you want to know?’  Eleanor King sipped on her tea and gave a little smile, just recognizing for the first time how desperate I was.  I took a deep breath.

‘I’m trying to learn about my father.  I want to know what he’s done.  And…’  I paused.  ‘What I want is for the world to know what my father has done.  I want to bring it all public.’

Eleanor King drew back in surprise.

‘Why you do that to your own Daddy?’

‘Because I’m tired of it,’ I explained.  ‘I’m tired of hearing about my grandfather like he was some kind of saint when I know he was a cruel man.  My father too.  All I want is to show people the truth.’  Eleanor King took a long sip of tea.  I remembered my own cup, still hot enough to burn my tongue.

‘Said it before, but this sure a strange way to learn ‘bout someone still breathing.’  I nodded in silent agreement.  ‘Still…’  Eleanor King smiled—the first time she’d smiled.  ‘I reckon I could tell you, seeing as how you want to make good.  Don’t see no harm.  Clyde—he wouldn’t a minded.  Clyde always wanted people to know what was going on.’

‘Well I appreciate it.’

She held up a crooked finger.  ‘Don’t thank me till you know what I got to say.  Actually, aint no reason for me to say anything.  Not when you can see with your own eyes, just like I saw.’  She stood and disappeared down the hallway.  When she returned she carried a wooden pencil box.

‘Clyde,’ she said, taking her seat with box in hand.  ‘He my big brother.  He always took care of us.  When Daddy, he died, Clyde came all the way back from Chicago.  He liked it up there.  Always wrote us letters ‘bout how Chicago was so different from Mississippi.  So when Daddy, when he died, there was nobody expect Clyde to take care of us.  I was fifteen but I couldn’t handle my brothers and the farm and go to school.  So Clyde came back to Poscataw, sure as gold.  Came back to Poscataw to run the farm and take care of us all.  I was oldest so I appreciated it most.  Henry and Marshall—they just thought it was their big brother coming home.  But not me.  Me and Clyde, we were always real close, always told each other all our secrets.  I remember how, when Clyde first came back, we’d sit up late at night and he told me stories ‘bout Chicago and how it was different.  “Want Mississippi to be that way one day,” he said.  I was only sixteen then but I listened good to remember all the stories.’  Eleanor King seemed to momentarily rise above her own sadness; I guessed that her eyes might have tinkled that way as she absorbed her big brother’s stories deep into the Mississippi night.

‘Clyde, he got the farm up and running again like it should, like Daddy had it.  Then he started talking ‘bout school and going back to school and getting that education.  Problem was there was only one school nearby and that was Southern.  But that didn’t stop Clyde.  Nothing coulda stopped Clyde.  Except that sheriff.  He always did what he wanted best for his people.  Bootlegging!  Clyde never even drank.’  I lifted the tea and sipped hot chamomile

‘That jail was an evil place,’ Eleanor continued, both hands wrapped around the warm cup of tee.  ‘We heard stories ‘bout that jail long time before Clyde ended up in it.  Black folk go in and they look like people you knew going in, but when they come out they don’t look so good.  Clyde, he wrote me letters I still got.  He wrote me letters most every day, up until he got weak and couldn’t write, and then they wouldn’t let him write—took away his pen and paper.  Most of the letters, I keep most of ‘em and don’t show ‘em to no one.  But I show you these.  These five tell the story.  I read ‘em a thousand times and I don’t wanna read ‘em no more.  I’m an old lady and I’m tired.’  She handed me the box.  I took it gingerly, as I would a baby, though it was not heavy.  I ran my hand along the smooth, unadorned top.  The wood had been stained a deep brown some time before and still carried a varnish.

‘Ms. King…what happened to your farm?  Why don’t you have it anymore?’

‘They took it!’  Eleanor King shot up straight and barked at me.  ‘Took everything.  Took it all.’

‘They?’

‘The State!’  Now she was on her feet.  ‘State of Mississippi knows how to take things—that’s what they do best.’  I swallowed twice, enduring her angry eyes.  ‘You not from down here, son, are you?’  Eleanor King put her fists on her hips.

‘No, I’m not.  I’m from California.’  She waved a hand at me dismissively and looked away; a native trying to explain local nuance to a visitor from another country.

‘The State—they have their ways.’  She said it to the wall.  ‘I had a friend once—his daddy died.  He kept at it on his daddy’s farm, tilling the land and taking care of it like his daddy would want.  You see, the land is all we got.  Land is all that matters down here.  The only thing that makes us equal is having land.  People think it’s about voting, and that’s real important too, but you got to have land.  If you don’t have land then you don’t come from nowhere.  You don’t have no history.  State of Mississippi knows this.  They don’t want us to have no history.  They have their ways.  My friend, he got a letter from the court saying the land isn’t his.  Saying his daddy had another child who was older and ought to get the farm.  My friend—he was an only child, so he knew this was a lie.  Went to court and there was a woman there said she was his daddy’s child.  The court gave her the land—took it away from my friend.  Then this woman, she sells the farm and no one ever hears from her again.’

I shook my head.  ‘Who was she, then?’

‘Some street woman from New Awlins.  These people, they come down here and hire blacks off the street and pay ‘em to say what they told to say.’

‘Who?  Who tells them what to say?’  Eleanor King leveled me with a scowl; I shrank back into my chair.

‘Lawyers.  Politicians.’  She spoke each word with bitter syllables.  ‘I always figured was the Governor came to take our land.  Simpson Concrete came in and said they had some grandfather rights.  There lots of rules down here made so white folks can take black folks’ land.  I tell you.  You think this all ancient history, too—I can see it in your eyes.  But this still going on down here.  Always has; always will.  They got our land—took it from us.  Henry and Marshall and I had to move down here.  Our Daddy worked that land so it could be ours but the State stole it.  State always has stolen from folks like us and always will.  But I don’t want to say too much more about it.  Time for you to move on.  You got the letters—that’s all you be needing.  There’s only five in that box.  I got more but you don’t need those.  The five in that box tell you all you need to know.’  Eleanor King stood and began to shoo me into the hallway.

‘I haven’t finished my tea,’ I protested.

‘I finished mine.  You like my tea so much you stop by some other time and we talk about something different.  Right now I don’t want to see no more of your face.  Look just like that man.’

I climbed into the truck and eyed the old wooden pencil box.  This had to be the evidence I’d been seeking.  I went to lift open the lid and my fingertips burned.  Now that the truth was so close I was scared of what I’d find inside.  I set the box beside me, so it was touching my leg, and started the truck.  I got on the freeway and followed the signs to the French Quarter.  I needed a drink before tackling this Pandora’s Box.  I found a place to park along Canal and soon I stood at the mouth of Bourbon Street.  I held the box of letters under one arm, like a halfback protecting the ball, and pressed into the Quarter.

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