Last Saturday afternoon my wife and I went to Sears. It was not a pleasant experience. I dropped my wife off in women’s dresses, then moseyed over to the Men’s Department.
While checking out the sales, I caught a glimpse of a guy I’d known in high school, Johnny Newton. Better than known, we’d been best buddies then. Here it was 1982 and it had been some thirty years since I’d seen him last. He had acquired a little paunch around his middle, lost some of his blonde hair to baldness, and now wore glasses. Otherwise he hadn’t aged at all.
Trying to avoid him like he was the chicken pox, I made a start to leave through the maze of shelves that was Men’s. Before I could skedaddle, he spotted me with that cut-you-to-the quick stare of his that always gave me the willies.
“Shucks, if it ain’t Breckinridge Robert E. Lee Beaudreaux,” he called, stopping me in my tracks. “You old son of Nathan Bedford Forrest High you. It’s a long way from Mississippi and here I find you in Orlando, Florida.
It was too late for a getaway, so I sauntered over to where he was standing by the men’s shirts. I took his hand and warily shook it and said, “I live here. Been here for the past twenty-five years. Since I got out of the service.”
He squeezed my hand something hard and said, “Ah, c’mon. You can squeeze that wet noodle of a hand better than that. Give me a man’s shake.”
I returned his squeeze with a harder one of my own just to prove that I had some gumption in me. “Hi, Johnny.”
“That’s better,” he said, releasing my hand. “Same old Bobby. And here I am so proud to see you.”
“Same old Bobby? I’m afraid I don’t get your drift.”
“You’re still trying to check out and avoid the inevitable, ain’t you?”
“Listen. That night was not inevitable.”
“That night?” There he was, acting like he had forgotten when I knew he hadn’t. One thing for sure was that he would never forget that night. He had been way too proud of what we’d done.
“You know what I am referring to.”
“Oh, you’re joshing me. You still fretting ‘bout that Saturday night. It ‘bout done gone and slipped right out of my brain. Now here you go reminding a fellow about it.” He was grinning from ear to ear like he was putting one over on President Reagan.
“If you’re the Johnny Newton I recall, if you’re that same Johnstown Newton, you have a memory like Sheriff Clawfoot used to have. ‘Member people thought he was kin to an elephant with those big ears of his and that memory.”
“Every little thing he ‘membered. Nothing seemed to git past that old fart of a cop. That’s for sure.”
“Like I said, Johnny…oh, well, we don’t need—“
He laughed. “Sounds like you’re the one who’d like to whup hisself up a little case of that amnesia.”
“What’s all that perhapsing for? I just can’t believe it. You’ve done gone and got yourself some citification. Wanting to be sophisticated and all. Trying to put on airs and leave where you came from behind. Ain’t you now?”
“It’s not that,” I said. Which I shouldn’t have.
“Oh, yeah it is. Just like you’re wanting to forget we had ourselves a time with that boy.”
“You call that tomfoolery we did entertaining?” I tried to appear nonchalant as I fiddled with the shirts.
“I still get goosepimples. That ol’ boy sure made a nice sack of taters.”
“I’m telling you I get nightmares. Just thinking ‘bout that poor black kid tied up in a burlap bag and swinging from that giant oak tree and us two taking pot shots at him with your .22.”
He grinned a big one. “I sure loved that gun. That’s the one my daddy gave me, you know.”
“Us not knowing,” I said, hoping somehow to get out of the conversation, “that he had a heart condition and all.” I turned and started to leave.
He grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me back toward him. “We never hit him or nothing. He went and killed his own self. Or don’t you ‘member that part?”
“He had a heart attack. Damn it.” I was struggling to keep my voice down. But the anger was piling up in me.
“So?” he said, his voice speaking in a normal tone.
“Just the same he died,” I said, the exasperation filling my voice. “And we were responsible.”
“Aw c’mon. We didn’t cause nothing. And besides he deserved it.”
“Deserved it?” I spat out the words.
“Never knew nobody deserved a dying more. Messing around with Katie the way he did. No nig—“
“Don’t call him that…that word,” I interrupted. “I hate that word.”
“Well, I declare. What’s a white boy like your own sweet self getting all jittery ‘bout. You ain’t gone and—“
“Never you mind.”
“Anyway, ain’t no black boy gonna be with a white girl. That is, if I can help it.” The smile was gone from his face.
“Everybody else had his way with Katie,” my words confronted him. “Leastwise that was the rumor. Why not Seymour? Besides we never had no proof that he did or he didn’t.”
“Walking her home from school like he did that week before graduating. That was all the sure-fire proof we needed. I’d say that n—“
“He had a name, you know.” I confronted him.
“Okay, Seymour. I’d say that Seymour got what he had coming. For getting what he thought he had coming to him.”
“Maybe they were just friends. He always seemed respectful towards her. She never had any of us for friends.”
“That’s ‘cause none of us wanted to be with a girl like that. Like you said your own self, she was downright trash.” He winked like he was revealing a secret we all knew but pretended we didn’t.
“I never said that.”
“Sure did, and you know you did.”
“Well, it still,” I said, “leaves a bad taste in my mouth when I think of what happened to him.”
“Sure tasted good to you back then. Didn’t it?” He grinned, then held up one of the shirts in front of his chest. “Think I’ll look good in this?”
I took the shirt from him and threw it back on the shelf. “That was a lifetime ago. And I just want it to go away.”
“You ain’t changed that much. You can’t tell me you have.”
“Oh, I’ve changed.” I knew I had changed and I wasn’t about to let the likes of him tell me otherwise.
“Only thing changed, those civil rights Jews come through and replaced old Creawfoot hisself and gave us a n…sorry, a black sheriff. All prim and proper in that bright new uniform of hissun’s too. That’s all. Soon as that happened you hightailed it. Got out of the country. The state even. You were always the first to scat at any sign o’ trouble. Just like you want to skedaddly-do right now and get away from the likes of me, don’t you? But I’m your heritage. I’m you past. You ain’t never gonna get away from that.”
“Go ahead,” he said, joshing me. “Admit how afraid you are not that the cops have all gone liberal-like. But you oughtn’t to worry. They think it was the Klan that went out and done that there mischief. Come to think of it. Maybe it was the Klan. Now why don’t you admit it. Them was your Klanning days.”
“They were not. I’s never a part of that bunch and you know it. Don’t you want to—“
“Come clean? No sirree. You probably scared I’ll go and spill them beans, ain’t you? With the kinds of odds against me I’ve had lately. No way. Been arrested too many times for owning up to that.”
“Arrested?” I asked.
“For all kinds of rigamarole. Just not for shed of no nig…coons, that is. ‘Course I could let them know it was you. Anonymous-like, if you want me to. You do want me to, don’t you? Give you a chance to come clean with that educated conscious you gone and got yourself.”
Frustrated, I shook my head. I was losing my patience big time. “No, I don’t. I just want it all to go away. It’s past now. That was a lifetime ago. I was a kid, doing dumb things back then. Getting into all sorts of trouble. I’ve changed. But I can see you haven’t.”
I wanted to hit him. I started to grab him by the collar. But something stopped me. I realized I was in Sears, not in some Alabama backwoods I’d left behind a lifetime ago. I was a civilized man now. I wasn’t going to sink back to down to the level I had been way back then.
“You ain’t changed nary a bit,” he said, his voice getting loud for the first time. “You just want me to think you’re better’n me. But you—“
“Breck,” I heard from behind me. I turned to see an attractive black woman in her mid-forties walking toward me. It was Chastain. We’d been married for twenty years. “I left my credit cards at home. Can I borrow yours? I found some dresses that I want to purchase.” She was now standing beside me.
“Sure.” I pulled out my wallet and handed her my Visa. “I’ll meet you over in women’s in a sec,” I said softly to her.
She took the card, kissed me a quick thank-you and said, “That’s fine. I’ll be with the dresses.” Then she left me alone with Johnny Newton.
“Well, I’ll be,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ll just be. Now if dogs could talk. But maybe they do.”
I started to say something, but I held back.
“Now, I get it,” he said “Nice, real nice. A fellow ought to not keep a secret from a lovely lady like that. It might go and get itself loose and finish him off. Then there’d be no more happily-ever-afters.” He slapped me on the shoulder and smacked his lips.
I gritted my teeth.
“Don’t,” I said, glaring at him. “Don’t even think it. If my wife ever finds out—“
“Oh, she’s gonna find out. You can’t keep a secret like that forever.”
“She’d just better not get it from you.”
“I hear confessin’ could be good for a soul. Get him a free ticket through them Perly Gates I done heard Saint Peter guards. Keepin’ out all the riff-raff likle our friends, Katie and Seymour. Seymour,” he said and laughed. “Now that’s a name for you.”
“Like I said—“ I couldn’t finish my sentence. I was so angry. I turned and left him there by the men’s shirts.
“I didn’t know yellow dogs could fly,” was the last thing I heard him throw at me as I stomped away. I stopped by the children’s shoes, calmed down and then walked over to the women’s department and met Chastain by the cash register. I signed the credit card receipt and picked up her packages. She took my hand and we walked out of Sears together, my white hand safely enfolded in her dark brown palm. It comforted me.
We made it to my light blue Honda Accord. My wife released my hand. I opened the trunk and dropped the packages inside. Just as I opened the car door for her, I heard Johnny’s yell. I looked up to see that he was across the parking lot several hundred feet away, calling after me, running towards me. A car slammed into his body and knocked him out of the way.
I noticed that my wife had not seen any of this as she settled into the passenger seat of the Honda. I breathed a deep relief and walked around to the driver’s side and got into the car. Then I looked at Chastain. I looked at Chastain and felt waves of guilt and shame rise in me like the tides at full moon.
A shadow of worry must have crossed my face because she asked, “Are you all right?” There was concern in her voice.
I looked away from her and straight ahead. I turned the ignition. The car didn’t start. On a second try, the car’s engine started up. I put the car into gear, then thought for a second and turned off the engine.
“Are you all right?” she asked again, taking my hand and squeezing it lovingly like she always did.
As I sat there in that Sears’ parking lot last Saturday afternoon, I realized what an unpleasant experience it had all been. Running into Johnny Newton. Now it was over.
Looking straight ahead, I tried to hold it all in. However I could only do that for a moment or two. It was no use. I turned to Chastain and said, “I have something to tell you, something that happened a long time ago. And I’m not real sure—“