A ride in his grandfather’s car always proved to be an adventure. He never knew quite where they might end up. Maybe just an errand. Sometimes a stop, or two, along the way to talk with friends or clients. A trip to the levee just to see how the river flowed. An ice-cold Coke or an ice-cream cone somewhere along the way.
He sat in the front seat of the Oldsmobile, the latest model, plush seats, electric windows, and fully equipped, including air-conditioning, perhaps the greatest luxury of all, especially on this hot, humid summer afternoon in late August. Away up north, where he lived, far from this small delta town along the Mississippi River, most cars had no air-conditioners. The only relief from summer heat back home would have been to roll down the rear window of the station wagon, the seat facing backwards, his usual place when his family traveled.
Today was different, somehow. His grandfather had not said where they were going. The boy glanced at his face and tried to guess, but could read nothing in the calm, deliberate features. His grandfather’s slight smile gave away little, since it usually graced his lips, except when he spoke of injustice or unrest in the world. Then it would become a thin, weary frown, and the corners of his mouth would draw in a sharp tisk of disapproval.
“Where are we going, Grandad?”
“You’ll see. We’re almost there.”
The town spanned only about ten or twelve blocks from one end to the other, at least in their part of it. But, the car had driven beyond the street where they often would have turned to drive to the lake or the country club for a swim on unbearably hot afternoons, like this one. Instead, they turned at the next corner to go in the opposite direction, down a street lined with ramshackle houses and unpainted shanties with bowed roofs.
He peered out the car window, his eyes just barely above the door. After a few blocks, they passed a corner market, where a few men stood out front, glaring at the large, blue car as they drove by, warily trying to see inside.
His grandfather turned the car at the next corner, and soon pulled up in front of a long, low, one-story building. Much of the white paint on the siding had peeled away. Out front, a sign swinging from the porch overhang above the steps read, “Still Waters Home for the Aged.”
He looked at his grandfather, who shut off the engine.
“We’re here. Let’s go on in.”
The boy opened the passenger door, stepped onto the street, and heaved the door shut. The heat bore down on his shoulders. His grandfather strode around the front of the car, and they walked together up the wooden stairs to the open porch. A few men, as old as any the boy had ever seen, sat in rocking chairs on the porch, and they rocked to a standstill, as he and his grandfather opened the screen door and walked inside.
The door opened into a wide hallway, which stretched through the middle of the building to the open back door. A reception desk occupied most of the center of the hallway, with room to pass through on the left. On either side of the hall, a set of large doors mirrored each other. Above the door on the right hung a sign labeled “WOMEN,” and on the left, “MEN.” Beyond the reception desk, another set of doors exactly matched the others.
His grandfather approached the desk. A caged fan oscillated with an occasional rattle on a shelf above the desk. A small, turquoise transistor radio, its cover taped together, played blues quietly to one side. The singer’s raw, plaintive voice desired a paradise with nothing to do.
The receptionist, a broad-shouldered woman in a blue flower print dress, her glossed hair flipped up at the ends, looked up and greeted them with a smile. A young boy with close-cropped hair, dressed in shorts and an open-collar green checkered shirt, stood beside her behind the desk. The two boys eyed each other, the way foreigners do, but neither spoke.
“Afternoon, Mr. Walter. It’s a hot one, ain’t it?”
“It certainly is, Miz Annabelle. This, too, will pass.”
“So right. So right. Can I help y’all?” she asked, with an expression nearing gratitude.
“We came to see Melvin Brown.”
“Yessir, Mr. Walter. You’ll find him as usual, all the way to the far wall on the right side.”
“Thank-you, Miz Annabelle.”
“And, who is this young man you bringed with you today, may I ask?
“This is my grandson, Will.”
“Well, hello, Will.” She turned to the boy standing at her side. “Sammy Lee, say hey to Will,” she prodded.
“Hey,” the boy replied.
His grandfather placed a hand on his shoulder, and turned him toward the door to the men’s ward. The boy turned the knob and opened the door, and they entered a large, open room with canvas partitions, which separated the beds lining the walls on either side and across the back. Two ceiling fans whirred overhead, stirring the air, but providing little relief from the heat and humidity. The windows on either side of the room were propped open, but not a whisper of a breeze came through them.
They walked toward the back of the room, and approached one of the cots at the far right corner. An old man, withered and frail, watched them come nearer, as he lay in the bed, his head resting on a pillow, its blue striped cotton ticking stained with sweat. His dark eyes glistened, and he raised himself to his left elbow.
“Well, hey, Mr. Walter. So good to see you, sir,” his voice rasped.
“And you, Melvin.”
“Y’all is too kind to stop by on such a day.”
“Not at all. Came to see how you’ve been coming along.”
“Well, I’m doin’ all right. All right, I guess.” He brushed a fly from his face. “The doc said he had to take my foot, ‘count of my sugar.” He pointed toward the foot of the bed. The form of his remaining foot raised beneath the cotton sheet.
“I’m so sorry to hear it.”
“Matter of time. Just so.”
“I want you to meet my grandson, Will.”
“Mos’ pleased to meet you, young man.” He stretched out his bony right hand.
Will shook his hand. It felt like leather. He had never before shaken a black man’s hand. Ever.
“Good to meet you, too.”
“Your grandpappy and I go way back. ‘Bout thirty, forty year, I reckon.”
“Melvin and I picked cotton together, once upon a time, back when we were both young.”
“Your grandpappy could pick nigh two hund’ed pounds a day, once he got ta goin’.” Melvin winked.
“Hard times. Had to eat somehow.” His grandfather smiled.
“But, Mr. Tip, he had his eye on you.”
“Nothing much Mr. Tip Misner didn’t see.”
“Some things he noticed more’n others, I’d say. People, too.”
“You’ll never have to pick no cotton, mos’ like.” Melvin eyed Will.
“Hard work. But, nothin’ wrong with that. Everbody ought to know what hard work is.”
“Well … I guess.”
Melvin glanced sidelong at Will. “You know what the white-eye is, Will?”
“White-eye is when a man is played out, after workin’ a long day in the field. His eyes sets back in his haid, and his eyelids sag down, an’ all you can see is the whites.” His weary eyes mimicked his words. “You ever been that tired?”
Will smiled and shrugged. “Guess not.”
“Mos’ folks hadn’t. Not today. Everthang’s done for ‘em. You grandpappy knows. He never took nothin’ from nobody that he didn’t earn. He done made somethin’ of hisself. You can learn a lot from a man like him.”
“We didn’t come here to talk about me, now, Melvin,” said Walter. “We came to see you.”
“Well, you seen me. Such as I am. No good to nobody. I ‘spect that they be takin’ other parts of me sooner or later. Little by little. Like an ol’ gingerbread man. Jus’ gobbled up. You know that story, Will?”
The boy nodded. He eyed the place where the missing foot should have been, and looked away.
“Is there anything you need? Anything we can get you?” asked Walter.
“The good Lawd takes care of all my needs. Yessir. I don’t lack a single thing. Thank you, though.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yessir. Won’t be long now, I ‘spect. I won’t have no needs at all.” He smiled wearily, and laid his head back on the pillow. “But, don’t y’all worry none ‘bout me. Dyin’ is the last thing I’ll ever do.”
Will peered up at his grandfather, who stood nearly half again as tall. A slow, wry smile spread across his face, as he shook his head. Will noticed, not for the first time, the deep sun-weathered creases on the back of his neck.
“Bout got the white-eye now,” said Melvin, quietly.
They rode away in silence. Instead of going home, his grandfather took Highway 65 out of town, driving north along the lake. After a few miles, he turned left onto a gravel side road, flat and straight, and drove through the fields, white with cotton. A cloud of dust followed the car.
“Hard work is good. Work like that can come nigh to break a man. Especially when he has no choice,” was all he said. His smile had turned to a thin, weary frown.