Thomas had been sent to pick me up at school and bring me back to Joplin for the summer. I would be fourteen in July and was certainly old enough to take a train like some of the other boys but Mother insisted. She was in Rome that summer with husband number two by my count, number four according to City Hall, too far away to get me out of trouble if I got into any. I protested by mail, begged her to reconsider, promised to behave on the train and for the whole summer. Either the letter arrived too late or she ignored it. In any case, Thomas arrived, punctual to a fault, by car to drive me home.
One of the boys, a pissant named Adam Chumley, came to fetch me.
“Your nigger’s here, Master Philip.”
He couldn’t be talking to me. Adam knew better than to waste words on me.
“I said, he’s waiting on you–”
“I heard you the first time, Madam Adam.” Teach him to talk out of turn.
Adam mustered one of the obscene noises he was known for and scooted before I could have at him.
By the looks of the driveway, the Depression had not come to Wickes Military Academy. Beetle-bright touring cars jammed the tarmac from end to end. Although there were newer models, no car was as shiny as Thomas’.
Other drivers lounged and smoked. Thomas stood erect in full uniform: dark blue suit, buttoned up with a matching bow tie and hat. The suit must have been snappy when Mother first bought it but the pants didn’t hold a crease, the jacket pulled across Thomas’s back and, even from a distance, the hat looked misshapen, the headband frayed and the material thin in the crown.
Thomas held his hands behind him. You couldn’t see it but I knew a chamois was balled up in those hands. His eyes were not idle. They inspected the car for smudges. Despite the hat’s visor, Thomas squinted. He always squinted. His face, brown as toasted almond, was bright with sweat. Before I could say anything, he spun around and grinned at me.
“Howdy-do, Master Philip.”
Some of the boys squatted on the steps, nobody I knew. They were staring for no reason except that they were bored. The formality was for their benefit but made me cringe. “Philip, Unc’,” I whispered, using the familiar.
“I know your name, boy,” Thomas whispered back. He started to grab my bags. I resisted. He insisted. He stowed the bags in the trunk. “Climb in. We gotta ways to go.”
I gave the dorm a quick once-over, glad but sad at the same time, and got into the front seat. Mother would have been furious if she’d seen me there. The front seat was our secret, Thomas’ and mine.
The butter-soft leather was slippery and hot from the sun streaming in the spotless windshield. The dash shone with a new application of wax. Custom-made cotton covers on the arm rests and thin cushions on the seats kept the upholstery cool and clean.
Thomas slid into the driver’s seat, adjusted the mirror and his hat. The old car started in a blink, rolled down the driveway and onto the main road bordering the lacrosse fields.
“You’ve gotten your growth, Philip,” Thomas said. “By this time next year, you’ll be big as me.”
“Uh-huh.” Thomas was a liar but he meant well. I wasn’t a shorty but I was still smaller than at least half of my classmates.
“Yes, sir, your Mama’ll be surprised when she gets back.”
“When will that be?” She was supposed to be back by now. Thomas began to hum low under his breath, something he did to avoid things.
“When is she coming back, Thomas?”
He stopped humming. “First week of September.”
“Right.” A sigh ballooned in my chest and escaped. I should have stopped caring by then. Disappointment had become a habit.
“Don’t get huffy,” Thomas said. “It’s her health, son. The baths are good for her.
The tour strained her voice.” Thomas gave me the eye. “Since when has she forgotten your birthday?”
“She’s bringing back something special from Italy.”
I smiled for him. I don’t know why he defended her.
Thomas had brought a box lunch along: cold chicken, salad, iced tea and peaches. The salad had wilted some in the heat and the ice was long gone from the tea but it tasted good, loaded with mint the way we liked it. Only when I took a bit of chicken did I remembered to ask about Lyda. I nearly
choked with guilt at my selfishness.
“How’s Auntie Ly’, Thomas, and the babies?” There were two babies and one on the way last time I knew.
“They’re fine, Philip.” Thomas smiled. His cheeks bulged with lunch.
I felt better right away, very grown up to have remembered at all.
Thomas swallowed big. “You won’t recognize the girls, they’ve grown so much,” he said. “And we’ll have to introduce you to the third. A little man.”
“Finally!” I said. It would be years until he’d be old enough to go fishing with us.
“Yup, Thomas, Jr.”
Thomas mopped his face with a kerchief and stretched out on the blanket. He squinted at the sun trickling down through the thick leaves of the shade tree. His eyelids drooped heavily. The crinkly lines relaxed and it looked like he might be sleeping. I cleared my throat to keep him from drifting off. His head snapped forward and he began collecting the remains of our picnic.
A full stomach and the stifling heat of mid-day blowing in through the windows put me to sleep before Thomas pulled off the shoulder and back onto the road. The last thing I remember is Thomas plunking his hat on my head to keep the sun off.
Dusk had wrung color from the day by the time we stopped in Union for the night. If Mother were home, Thomas’d driven straight through but she wasn’t and he was tired. We pulled into a roadside motel just as the “vacancy” sign flashed on.
We drove up to the office window. Thomas tooted the horn once. A man squinted out the window of the dark booth.
His face was stubbly and his thinning blond hair slick as cornsilk plastered onto his head. Mother would have pegged him as a cracker right off. He craned forward a little, his eyes narrowing even more, and gave the car a once-over. He bared his gums in an appreciative smile. “Evening, sir.”
“We’ll be staying the night,” Thomas said, “if you’ve got a room.”
“Vacancy’s what the sign says and vacancies’ what we got, sir,” the man said.
He never stopped grinning, that man and the musty smell of stale liquor and chew blew out the window and filled the car. He turned to find a room key. Thomas pulled his wallet from his breast pocket, carefully counted out the bills and placed them on the little counter.
When the man handed over the key his eyes were on the money. “Where’re you heading?”
“Just picked up the boy at Wickes and home is Joplin.” Thomas answered in his deep voice. His hands gripped the steering wheel and his knees bobbed as his feet played over the pedals.
“Have you eaten?”
“Not yet,” Thomas said.
“There’s a little place just next door.” The man pointed over the top of the car to a blinking neon sign that read “Cal’s.” “A few of the fellas and I’ll be heading that way in half an hour. We’d be pleased if you’d join us. I’ll buy us a round.”
Thomas squirmed and eyed me. “The boy–”
“Your boy’s welcome. There’s food and pop for him.”
I giggled under the hat. Your boy! Mother’d die.
“That’s kind of you,” Thomas said.
“Pleased,” the man said. He looked pleased. His smile got bigger. He didn’t have any teeth towards the back. “Number 2’s the first cabin to your left.”
I was hungry again and ready to head over to Cal’s as soon as we parked but Thomas made me scrub up and change clothes. He stood behind me as I splashed water over my face. Before I could reach for a towel, his big hand clamped down on my head, tilted it this way and that inspecting my ears. He handed me a towel and gently pushed me out the bathroom door.
I dressed then sat on the end of the bed and watched Thomas as he dragged a wide-toothed comb through his nappy short hair. He ran a hand over his cheeks and straightened his bow tie.
“I guess it’ll do,” he said to the mirror. He caught me spying and spun around.
“You got nothing better to do?”
“I’m ready,” I said. “I’m just waiting for you.”
“I thought I told you to change.”
I stood to show him I had. Maybe I’d chosen the wrong clothes.
“All right then.” He tugged at my tie. “You look just fine.”
“So do you,” I said. He looked embarrassed. I was never any good at saying the right thing.
“All right then,” he repeated. He smiled suddenly and ruffled my hair.
We picked our way between the scrubby weeds along the road to the restaurant. It was really summer. The air was thick with insects and the smell of pine. Humidity and sweat clung like vaseline to the back of my neck.
Thomas was silent. His arms pumped as he walked along, taking it all in. I could hear him grabbing big gulps of night air. He stopped once to find the moon where it hung low, caught in the branches of a tree beside the road. He nodded at it, harrumphed and walked on.
Except for a clutch of six men huddled around a table in the back, Cal’s was empty. The bartender leaned over the bar and listened intently. The motel man was telling a story. He sat with his back to the door. The dim light from a wall sconce lit up his hair. The screen door slammed shut behind Thomas.
“Well, looky here,” the bartender said. He straightened and crossed his arms over his belly. His bug eyes focused briefly on me then fixed hard on Thomas.
The hair on the back of my neck began to bristle. Thomas must have known because his hand landed warm and comforting in my collar. Something was wrong though because his fingers trembled.
The men at the table had stopped listening and were all staring. The motel man glanced over his shoulder and caught sight of me. He slapped the table. “Well, here they are. My guests!”
The men at the table continued to stare. The motel man didn’t seem to notice. He must have been pretty drunk. His words ran together. He waved us over.
“Go on, boy,” Thomas’ voice stroked my ears. He steered me forward with the hand still on my neck.
We entered the circle of light around the table. One by one the men straightened in their chairs and crossed their arms as though connected by a string.
“Pull over a couple of chairs, Andy,” the motel man said to one of the stonefaced men. “These are the two I was telling you about, come all the way from Virginie in the sweetest big ole car you ever seen.”
The bartender slammed his fist down on the bar. I felt the thump in my shoes.
“I don’t serve niggers.”
The motel man looked confused and then jerked around. “Cal?”
“He’s a nigger,” Andy hissed.
The motel man spun full around and for the first time saw Thomas. His rheumy eyes rested on the two of us just an instant and then he was on his feet sending his chair clattering halfway across the room. He glared and bared his gums. This time he wasn’t smiling. He growled low in his throat and brownish spittle collected in the corners of his month. “You lousy black son of a whore,” he hissed.
The curse sent me back a step. I slammed up against Thomas’ chest.
The motel man’s stubby arms drew up, cocked and ready for a fight. The men stood one by one. Thomas’ hands steadied me and pulled me up close beside him.
“There must be a misunderstanding,” Thomas said.
“You bet there is, boy.” It was Andy talking again.
The men advanced, menacing as a pack of dogs.
“Like hell!” The men froze. “You invited us, you low-life cracker.”
Thomas smacked me in the chest, stopping the stream of words that crowded on my tongue and burned like bile. I shook loose and stood my ground. Hatred stiffened my spine and curled my fingers into fists.
“Take the boy and get out,” Cal said.
“Come on, Philip,” Thomas said, “We’re not welcome here.” He took a step in my direction.
I wasn’t having any. “We came for dinner. This cracker says you have food.”
“Easy, boy,” Thomas whispered.
“Who you calling cracker, boy?” The motel man was on the move, his boys backing him every step.
I drew myself up to my full five four and watched him come. “Between you and me there ain’t but one cracker.”
The motel man’s fist shot out and sent me sprawling. I scrambled to my feet and landed one square on his scrubby jaw. He barely flinched. His hands recoiled, set to strike again.
Thomas’ hand descended like a lead weight on my neck, his fingers clutched my collar. He lifted me out of range. The motel man’s punch caught Thomas on the shoulder. His body came down over me like the dank dark shell of a cathedral; my arms and legs bowed under his weight like flying buttresses. His arm encircled my waist and lifted me clear off the floor. Sawdust flew as I struggled to regain my footing and the stream of bile spewed forth leaving not one of those men, my kind, unscathed.
The next I knew, I was on my back in the brush by the side of the road. Thomas loomed above me, his chest heaving with the effort and fury. He mopped my face and then his with a kerchief that shone white as the moon hovering behind his ear.
“You done, boy?” he whispered.
I stood and dusted myself off. I followed Thomas’ bent back. The fight had taken the speed out of him and I was alongside in no time.
“You shoulda fought, Unc’,” I said. “Big as a house. You could’ve taken ‘em all, easy.”
“Small as you are, it’s time you learn when to fight and when to leave well enough alone. You could’ve got us both killed.”
That hurt. He was mad. “You mad?”
“Hell, no!” His hand was on my neck again, warm and damp. “You did what you thought was right. You just gotta learn to back up right with common sense, s’all.”
We packed our bags, loaded up the car and left. We were both too jumpy to sleep. I did sleep though about ten minutes after Thomas started the engine.
Ordinarily, just past Webb City, Thomas stopped and made me get in back. No sense taking a chance that someone might see me up front and no climbing over the seat. That was part of the deal. I don’t know if it was because Thomas was so tired but that morning we never even slowed down. We rolled into Joplin in broad daylight, me up front, door to door. Mother never found out.
Top photo is a school picture of my father grabbed from my sister’s Facebook page. Thank you, Robin!
Motel shot was taken by John Lloyd and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.