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Bull Run, Alabama
Chicken could be one mean motherfucker. I knew this the moment I laid eyes on him. Short and tough, with sandy hair slicked all over his head, it was easy to see how he got his name, and the way Old Man Wilkes slaved him out at that Snatch Hatch . . . shucks, when a scrawny yellow nigger like him felt ugly, all hell was bound to break loose.
It was hot for September when I met him. Indian summer, Poppa Daddy called it. The kind of day that spotted bass jumped out the waters of Black Shoals Lake and teenage girls swam half-naked in Dudson Creek.
Chicken had just gotten out of jail, and I sat sweating under the awning of Millie’s Fabric Store—chewing on a string of black licorice and watching Jessie-Belle Lawson’s hips as she and her daddy strolled up and down the open market, squeezing peaches, sniffing melons, and piling onions and peppers on top of big hunks of roasted chicken and sausage.
Sugar Baby, my granmaw, had gone inside to buy some fabric for the Bull Run Girls Junior Drill Team, and I rocked back and forth on a wooden crate diggin’ the happenings on the crowded street.
Jessie-Belle looked good, even on a dog day. A church girl gone bad, she sat next to me in senior lit, and every brother on the campus of Bull Run High had fantasized about those curves circling ’round her curves, coming off of her curves, but none more than me. Today she’d decked her banging body in a white skirt with a halter top and a pair of high heels, and as she strutted past I took off my baseball cap and covered my johnson, which had swollen up like a snake that’s ready to spit.
Jessie-Belle, or Jezza-Belle as she was known in the bottoms, was on a short leash, but that had never stopped her. She and her father, a squat-necked preacher who once played defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys but now made guarding his daughter’s virtue his full-time job, walked back and forth between the vendor tables, portable carts, and makeshift stands. Every so often the good Reverend Lawson would turn around and bust me eyeballing Jezza-Belle’s assets, and I’d squint up into the sun and make like I was admiring the beauty of J.C. Himself. The glare on his face told me he wasn’t fooled. It also told me what he’d do if I ever got close enough to his daughter to do more than just look.
I’d been in Bull Run for eleven years. Eleven years since the night my father saved my life, then walked back into a burning house to die in my mother’s arms. Eleven years since my grandparents, Ike and Sugar Baby Armstrong, had flown to Oakland to fetch me, Malcolm Marcus Mosiah Armstrong, the only son of their only son.
I leaned back on the crate as the sputtering of a strained motor drifted down the street, its engine backfiring, the popping sounds getting lost in the noisy crowd of Saturday shoppers. As fine as Jezza-Belle was, and as hard as I was diggin’ on her, I also kept one eye trained across the street on Fleck’s Pharmacy, where Barney Judd and his boys stood outside smoking and joking, bumping into passersby, and generally cuttin’ the fool.
More than thirty years had passed since the days of Jim Crow, and Bull Run was still a town divided. The only place black and white went together was on book pages and piano keys, and poor white trash like Jimmy Stone, Ralph Dobson, and Barney Judd fed on our color conflicts and kept them raging full steam.
Me, Ralph, and Barney went way back. As kids, we’d boxed together over at Dockside Gym, where I was the only brother fighting on the roster. By the time I was thirteen I had a left hook like a mallet, and my Poppa Daddy decided to tear down his old barn and build a place where I could win in the ring without having to prove myself all over again with a bunch of white boys outside in an alley.
Ralphie Dobson was a decent fighter, but Barney was a redneck with true skills. He was mean and nasty, the kind of boxer who kicked ass first and took names later, both in and out of the ring. We’d met on the canvass once and it came out a draw, but the minute I switched gyms and was no longer on his team, he quit faking the funk and got a hard-on for me that had lasted for almost five years.
Barney came from a large family of riffraff trailer trash who, outside of boxing, generation after generation had produced less than dirt. Them Judds were known to despise black folks, and shopping with Granmaw or no, Barney wasn’t above jumping on a brother and scuffling in the street, so I kept my eye on him and his ragbag crew while I waited for Sugar Baby to buy her fabric and come on out the store.
The heavy rumbling drew closer, and a faded blue truck belonging to Old Man Wilkes crawled down the street kicking up dust as waves of heat rose up in front of it.
“Eggs . . .”
Lester Wilkes made his produce run once a week, and his raggedy pickup swayed as the wood-slated bed bumped along the path, his fragile cargo in the back cushioned in crates and tucked under thick layers of cloth.
“Egggsss . . . for sale . . .”
The old man eased the truck over to the curb, his fat arm hanging out the window, a Pall Mall pinched between his fingers.
“Come an’ git yo’ fresh egggsssss!”
There was an empty space ten paces in front of me, between a perfume vendor and a johnny pump. Wilkes eased the pickup in and shifted into park.
“Eeeeegggggs! Fresh egggsss! Jest a buck’ll git you a dozen fresh eggggsss . . .”
Wilkes opened his door and hopped to the ground. I sat up straight as he glanced around the market, then nodded, apparently satisfied with the crowd.
“Git your ass down, boy,” I heard him snap as he limped to the back of the truck. He pulled a dirty cloth from his pocket and coughed, then spit into the dust and stirred the glob with the toe of his boot. Folks began straggling over to inspect his goods, and the slick little hooch-brewing man whispered from the corner of his mouth, “Hur’rup an’ pull them blankets off an’ let these stingy mothafuckahs git a good look.”
I peered into the back of the truck. A rat-faced young brother sat with his back propped against the rotted planks. Pulling himself up, he stood on the chrome bumper and glanced around, then jumped down from the bed of the truck. He was short and looked real mad about it, his mouth set, his skin damn near the color of piss. He wore faded jeans, but them suckers sported a mean crease, and his thin arms were knotted up with muscles beneath his bleached-clean undershirt.
I’d heard all kinds of rumors about this kid and what he’d done. They said his name was Bishop Johnson and that he went for bad. I’d also heard he was coming to twelfth-grade classes at Bull Run High, but I seriously doubted it ’cause Brothaman was light in the ass and didn’t look a day over fourteen.
I watched as he yanked the padded cloths off the cargo bed and stuffed them down in the spaces between the crates. He did all of this real smooth-like, moving like he was his own man on his own time, then he propped his foot up on the fender, its original shine dulled and mottled with crusted drops of chicken shit.
“Hey there, Lester Wilkes.” Betty Hodge, Bull Run’s first black librarian, walked up holding two dollar bills. As hot as it was, she had on a blue pants suit with fake fur around the collar, flip-flops, and a wide-brimmed hat.
“Mornin’, Mizz Betty.” Old Man Wilkes took off his cap and bent a little at the waist. “How’s Cal holdin’ up?”
Miss Betty had the nerve to fan herself. “Fair to middling, especially for a man who been struck so low. He even managed to sit up and eat a little bit this morning. Course, it ran right back out his mouth and down his shirt, the funky black dog. A stroke ain’t the worst thing he coulda got, seeing how he couldn’t stay his tail outta that nasty cooch joint you runnin’ out there in them woods. But God don’t tell you when or how he’s gonna make you pay for your sins. He just assures you that your black behind will.”
I snickered. She was talking about the Snatch Hatch. I was dying to get out to that lake and see for myself if what they said about Wilkes’s jook joint was true.
“Well, God bless him.” Wilkes shrugged and motioned toward his crates. “You want the usual two dozen today?”
“Yes, please,” she said. “And make sure ain’t none spoilt. Last week you gimme a carton with two rotten ones on the bottom.”
Wilkes frowned. “That musta been my no-good nephew put them rotten eggs in there! Ain’t enough I gots to feed and clothe him, since he just got outta the bad-boy house and ain’t got no other kinfolk. He’s lazy as hell and coo-coo too.”
Miss Betty grabbed the eyeglasses hanging from a silver chain around her neck and balanced them on her nose. She stared at Brothaman, who sat with his elbow on his knee and his chin in his hand, gazing off into the crowd. “This here your nephew? The one they say kilt all them folks up in his daddy’s ho house?” Miss Betty clutched her change purse to her chest and studied him closer. “He don’t look like no big-time killer to me. Child look like he hungry, if anything. What your name is, honey? Tell Miss Betty what they call you.”
Brothaman took all day acknowledging the old woman. Made me wonder if he was planning on opening his mouth at all.
Wilkes wondered too. “Yellah niggah, you—” He fumbled around trying to undo his belt. “You heared Mizz Betty! Hur’rup and answer when grown folks talkin’ at you!”
That little nephew of Wilkes’s gave him a look so hateful it froze his hand, and as big as I was, my heart did a double pump at the naked violence in his face.
“Chicken,” he said, and stood up straight, pure meanness jetting from his eyes. I let out my breath, surprised to find that I’d been holding it. “I go by Chicken.”
I chewed the last of the licorice string and stretched my legs. Like the rest of the kids my age, I wore faded jeans and a T-shirt in the winter, and cutoff jeans and a T-shirt in the summer. Hot, I waved away a honeybee that had been attracted to the sticky black candy, then cleaned my hands on the sides of my shorts. The awning above me cast a bit of shade, but it was no match for the Alabama sun.
Jezza-Belle and the preacher had gone, but not before she winked at me with those sexy brown eyes and waved good-bye. Rocking back on the crate, I alternated between watching the kid who called himself Chicken and keeping an eye on the crew across the street. Them rednecks was flexin’ like a mother, stealing goods from under Mr. Fleck’s nose, blowing cigarette smoke in grown folks’ faces, and swigging beer from naked bottles.
Meanwhile, little Chicken sweated out in that hot sun, reaching into crates and passing out cartons of fresh eggs to shoppers while getting cussed out by Old Man Wilkes from one end of the alphabet to the other. I’d heard more than enough by the time Granmaw came out the store with twenty-’leven packages in her arms.
“Hey, Granmaw.” I put on my cap and stood as she pushed through the door, a blast of Millie’s cool air following her. My granmaw was a tall, big-boned woman who, until diabetes got ahold of her, could swing an axe just as well as she sewed a stitch. She stood eye to eye with me, and at seventeen I had just inched over six feet.
My grandparents had started out on a cotton farm near the banks of the Mississippi, and soon after my father, Ezekiel, was born, they moved further west into Bull Run, a small factory-and-farming community outside of Pine Bluff. Granmaw, known to most as Sugar Baby, had been a master seamstress and worked for a flag-making company in Langston, and Poppa Daddy made his living raising small animals for slaughter and farming plots of tobacco on his patch of valley land.
Granmaw handed me her bags. “You ready, Mister Malcolm?” Eyeing the Chevy pickup, she frowned. “Look at that Lester Wilkes! A mess before God up in that Snatch Hatch! Wouldn’t eat nary one of them eggs what come out of his old drunk hens. And who’s that boy he got with him in all that heat? Don’t tell me that’s the killer nephew tongues been wagging about.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I nodded. “That’s him. His name Chicken, and Miss Betty say he killed a bunch of folks in his daddy’s ho—in his father’s house.”
Granmaw grunted and waved her hand. “Don’t be so quick to judge. There’s a whole slew of pots out there raisin’ sand about kettles. Ain’t no telling what that poor child been through to make him do whatever he done, but I know for sure what’s ahead of him living with that nasty behind Lester. C’mon, Mister.” She shook her head, disgusted. “Let’s go to the post office, then get on back to the house.”
I made a move to follow her, but then I peeped Barney Judd jogging across the street, knocking people out of his path. Ralphie and Jimmy cheered him on as he pushed through the line of customers standing by Wilkes’s truck, and just as that Chicken dude reached out to put half a dozen eggs in Elder Adrian’s outstretched hands, Barney lowered his shoulder and plowed dead into him. Chicken stumbled and the eggs sailed into the air.
Pavement’s so hot them eggs is gonna fry . . .
“Mothafuc—” Old Man Wilkes cussed as the eggs fell toward the ground, and in the second it took me to cringe and blink, there was an impossible lunge of movement. Moments later I stood shocked as Barney jogged back across the street, choking back his victory cry. Elder Adrian’s hands were still outstretched, his jaw hanging loose, and the scrappy little Chicken stood there as chill as he wanted to be. Clutching two handfuls of perfectly oval eggs. And not a crack in nary a one.